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More employers adopt generous leave policies

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Sidney Davis | Trib Total Media
Bar Marco employee Joslynne Manges is due to give birth to her first child in February 2016. The Penn Avenue restaurant is one employer voluntarily offering to give staff extended paid time off.

If she’d had her baby a year ago, Joslynne Manges would be worrying about more than how to be a new mother.

She would be figuring out how to pay her hospital bills without health insurance and how much time she could afford to take off from her restaurant job. Every day not spent working is a day she isn’t paid.

But Manges, food and beverage director for Bar Marco in Pittsburgh’s Strip District, got pregnant this year, and her employer broke from the industry norm and offered two weeks of paid time off to its employees, including those who become new parents.

“My job is assisting me in having my first child, which is a huge deal for someone working in a restaurant,” Manges said. “This makes having this life change so much easier.”

A rash of employers lately began offering more generous paid leave for employees. Netflix, Adobe, Goldman Sachs, Microsoft and Hilton hotels each said they would give new parents extra paid time to spend at home.

Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and other cities are requiring employers to offer paid sick leave.

Employment experts wonder whether generous paid leave benefits will become a widespread phenomenon, or remain a luxury enjoyed by well-compensated workers in technology and finance. There is a sense that after years in which the workday has extended beyond 9 to 5 and crimped employees’ time at home, the pendulum is swinging in the other direction.

“I think, generally, companies are looking at their leave policies, especially given the fact that there are more dual-income couples in the workplace than a generation ago,” said John Challenger, CEO of Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc., a Chicago-based global outplacement and career transitioning firm with offices in Green Tree. “I think there is a move to do this right now, and it’s a long-term trend of more understanding of how to allow workers to balance their personal lives with their careers.”

Workers may have tolerated higher demands on their personal time during the recession, considering themselves lucky to have a job, Challenger said. But a tightening labor market in the recovery has pushed companies to become more generous as they compete to attract and retain talent.

Targeted workers

There are questions about how widespread these benefits could become.

Most companies that have voluntarily offered them are deep-pocketed firms; the workers covered are in high-paying, specialized fields rather than rank-and-file employees in service industries. Those are the industries where competition for talent is most fierce, said Dave Baker, CEO of Human Capital Advisors, a human resources consultant in Cranberry.

“It’s happening, but it’s usually happening in companies that are large, public companies that have significant revenue and profit,” Baker said. “The companies are doing it because they’re trying to steal employees away from competitors.”

The hotel chain Hilton is an exception because it employs a lot of blue-collar workers. Last month, it said it would give new mothers 10 paid weeks off and fathers two weeks.

However, the parental leave policy may not benefit as many workers as it would seem. Employees of franchised hotels that make up the bulk of Hilton’s locations are not eligible for the parental leave benefits that take effect next year. It applies only to workers at company-owned and managed hotels, or roughly one of every six locations.

It’s unlikely there will be a wider adoption of paid leave policies unless public policymakers push to require it, Challenger said.

Court challenge

There has been such a push to pay workers for sick time.

In August, Pittsburgh City Council adopted a measure that requires employers to offer workers one hour of sick leave for every 35 hours worked. It joined other cities, including Philadelphia, with similar requirements.

A hospitality group and several businesses are challenging Pittsburgh’s sick leave ordinance in court. They say the requirement violates the state constitution and imposes a one-size-fits-all rule that unfairly punishes certain employers.

“When you have the Affordable Care Act, paid leave mandates, the minimum wage increase, it’s just a completely different scenario between businesses that have these huge profit margins and businesses that are trying to get by,” said Melissa Bova, director of government affairs for the Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association, a plaintiff in the lawsuit.

Paid leave advocates say giving workers paid sick leave is cheaper for employers in the long run. It helps them retain experienced staffers who are more productive and saves employers the expense of recruiting, hiring and training workers to take their place.

That was the rationale at Bar Marco when the owners revamped the staff structure this year, said Kevin Cox, the restaurant’s co-owner.

Entering its third year, Bar Marco’s owners took a close look at their liabilities, Cox said. They decided that the biggest threat to business was losing employees.

“We really needed to lock in our employees,” he said.

To do that, Bar Marco owners made employees full-time, salaried and with health and vacation benefits, he said, reasoning that it would give them more security. Tips no longer are allowed, and the costs of business are reflected in food prices, he said.

Bar Marco’s move is laudable, Bova said, but the policies of a fine dining establishment are not practical across the wider hospitality industry.

“I think it’s great that Bar Marco can make the decisions that they can,” Bova said. “I think Bar Marco is a very different business than a corner deli.”

Aversion scenario

There’s a question of whether workers would take advantage of expanded benefits.

Netflix offered new parents unlimited paid leave for a full year. But if workers felt pressured to take less time, lest they be considered slackers, how effective would the policy be?

“On the surface level, it seems like a great gesture. It’s put in place to help,” said Rusty Lozano, a professional counselor in Texas who has worked with people with anxiety and depression related to workplace stress. “But underlying it, I think, is the perception that it actually creates an aversion scenario where if people feel that they’re away too long or they’re not getting projects done, they may lose their position to someone else.”

Millions of Americans don’t use all of their paid time off. Four in 10 leave at least three days unused each year, according to Project: Time Off, part of the Travel Association. Two-thirds of Americans say their companies do not promote taking time off.

Manges, the Bar Marco employee, has every intention of taking her full two weeks of paid leave when her baby arrives in February, plus extra time, though she doesn’t know how much it will be. Federal law allows an employee to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for pregnancy without the threat of losing a job.

Knowing that she’ll draw a paycheck for at least some of that time is a comfort. And that, Manges said, gives her freedom to focus on issues at home that will help her be in a better place when she returns to work.

“It offers me stability in my professional life and outside in my personal life,” she said.

Chris Fleisher is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7854 or [email protected].

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