Juggling in a hurricane

Why employers are looking to expand paid leave next year, and best practices for making it happen

Before COVID-19, employers were looking at paid leave to make them more attractive to great workers. Now they’re considering it because they know it’s essential to keep their workers healthy and productive. But there’s a lot to think about as they plan their benefit offerings for the coming months and years.

How COVID-19 exposed holes in the leave safety net

Our recent survey of more than 400 employers across the country revealed that 44% of employers were planning to expand paid leave benefits in the coming year. Only a quarter said they weren’t. 

It’s not hard to see why. As the pandemic made people sick, closed schools and shuttered businesses, lack of paid leave had many employees juggling in a hurricane — trying to weather an extraordinary storm while balancing life at work and at home. 

Corporate sick-leave and vacation/PTO quickly ran out for employees affected by the pandemic. The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) provides some leave for illnesses or caregiving, but that leave is unpaid — it protects an employee’s job, but not their paycheck. The Families First Coronavirus Relief Act (FFCRA) requires employers to provide paid leave in some pandemic-related circumstances — but only until the end of 2020, and only for employers with under 500 employees. 

These gaps have shown employers that their paid leave programs might not be sufficiently robust. With COVID-19 cases continuing to increase in many places, they want to be prepared to do more in the coming year.

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What to think about when planning to grow paid leave

Experts we’ve talked to have some advice for employers as they think through expanding paid leave plans. 

Get up to date on the law.

“Before planning your program,” says Ellen McCann, Assistant Vice President and Legal Counsel in Unum's Employment Law Group, “make sure you’re familiar with all the paid leave laws that apply in your location. 

“Many local jurisdictions have specific COVID-19-related paid-leave requirements. Some states expanded the FFCRA leave provisions to larger employers. So if you’re trying to craft a policy that can apply to all employees at all your locations, figure out what you have to provide, then decide what you want your program to look like.”
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Take a holistic approach.

Rob Hecker, Vice President of Global Total Rewards for Unum, says that employers need to broaden their idea of the value of paid leave. Paid parental leave has been a big topic in recent years, but “people have all sorts of caregiver challenges beyond taking care of a new baby. There are a number of different demographics that paid leave impacts.” 

Hecker advises that employers take a short step back and consider how leave fits into their whole benefits portfolio. “It’s always important to look holistically — you must have a diverse portfolio to meet the needs of diverse employees. Does paid leave make sense, does it align, do you need to do other things with the investment?”

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Adjust spending priorities.

Speaking of investment, there’s no underestimating how difficult it will be to afford expanded leave in a damaged economy. “There are tax credits available for providing FFCRA paid leave,” says McCann. “Talk to your accountant and understand what you may qualify for.” Beyond that, it may be a case not of expanding the benefits pie, but reallocating it to fit the needs of the time. “Look at your portfolio and prioritize your offerings,” advises Hecker. “Look at your overall PTO program — can you change the definitions of how leaves are used? Being creative and figuring out where the opportunities are — that’s the biggest challenge.”

Paid leave will remain critical even after the pandemic eases

The immediate future is going to be rocky. Employees who’ve been struggling to keep it all together while working from home may find they’re all out of tricks when faced with going back to the workplace while children are still not back to school. And even those who continue working remotely may find it increasingly difficult to keep working as summer childcare arrangements end and at-home school resumes. Employers may have an obligation to provide FFRCA leave under some of these circumstances. And if they require employees to come back to the physical workplace, they should also be prepared for additional mental health, FMLA and ADA accommodation requests.
Decorative callout: To protect their company's resiliency, employers should be plotting their next move right now.

“There’s no question we’re not out of the woods yet,” says McCann. “Employees are still going to need leave.” To protect their company’s resiliency, employers should be plotting their next move now.

Finally, while it might not seem like it right now, at some point the pandemic will end, and paid leave will retain its value for recruitment and retention. Sharlyn Lauby, President of ITM Group Inc. and author of HR Bartender, says, “Even though we hear about unemployment and furloughs, the talent market continues to be challenging. Employers will want to make sure their benefits package is competitive, and paid leave keeps bubbling up to the top as a must-have benefit.”

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