Flexibility Is The Dominant Trend For Parental Leave

Reading books to her daughter’s first-grade class isn’t one of her job responsibilities, but on Friday mornings for the 2011-12 school year, Julia Strickland wasn’t playing hooky from work. She was taking advantage of her employer’s accommodating parental leave policies.  

Strickland, business manager for the employment law firm Cross Gunter Witherspoon & Galchus in Little Rock for nearly 10 years, has worked long enough at the firm to have taken six weeks of maternity leave for her youngest daughter’s birth and now to concern herself with participating in all three of her children’s school experiences.

Cross Gunter fosters a culture of flexibility and works with all its employees on a “case-by-case basis,” Strickland said.

(Click here to read an overview of the federal Family & Medical Leave Act.)

That flexibility allows families to not just get their children to the doctor as needed, but also to attend Parent Teacher Association meetings, school sporting events and other family activities that boost their quality of life.

Work flexibility, like what Strickland enjoys, is the growing trend for parental leave in Arkansas, according to Kelly DeStefano, who is state director of the Arkansas Society of Human Resource Management and works as human resources director for Youth Home of Little Rock.

“In Arkansas in general, I think workplace flex in the last five years has really come of age,” DeStefano said. “We allow our folks, if there’s a school play or whatever, we absolutely allow them to take time off to go and do that. I don’t think you would’ve seen that 20 years ago.”

And while some parental leave policies are generally the same — companies’ paternity and maternity leave policies in Arkansas mainly mirror the federally outlined up to 12 unpaid weeks off — the newer trend is to allow more employees to work from home or create custom schedules for family reasons, she said.

Geania Dickey, program coordinator for the Arkansas Governor’s Work-Life Initiative, said some employers in the state pay for short-term disability insurance so employees can be paid while they’re out on maternity leave, but often employees don’t get paid while they’re recovering from childbirth unless they’ve accumulated paid time off or sick days.

At Arkansas Power Electronics International in Fayetteville, administrative assistant Alicia Jones said that currently, instead of short-term disability options, employees are able to roll over their vacation time and save it.

Two recent new moms at APEI were able to take five to six weeks of paid time off because they had saved their leave, she said. In addition, APEI offers a flexible workday, requiring employees to be in the office from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on weekdays and making the rest of the workday flexible. Time before 10 a.m. and after 3 p.m. can be used for personal needs, and employees can work on weekends or at other times to make up the work, Jones said.

Modern Expectations

Ben Shipley, an employment lawyer in Fort Smith and president of the Western Arkansas Human Resources Association, said the generations following the baby boomers aren’t as loyal to employers and want balanced lives because they’ve seen layoffs and hear in college that they’ll work several jobs throughout their careers.

“Work is an important part of their lives, but so are families and personal lives,” Shipley said. “There’s an expectation that people will need to have some time to be good parents to their children, which may include going to parent-teacher conferences and athletic events.”

DeStefano said it’s the rare Arkansas company that offers family perks such as subsidized day care, permission to bring children to work daily or paid attendance at school plays and PTA meetings.

Most often, the businesses let employees work out alternative schedules to enhance their lives. Even a factory will allow an employee to miss some work and later make up the hours for the sake of a family occasion, DeStefano said.  

The changes have come due to technology that allows many jobs to be mobile, as well as evolving family structures that can include aging relatives and grandparents who raise grandchildren, she said.

“I think a big driver for that is family issues in general. The home life isn’t what it used to be. … The workplace is having to adjust,” DeStefano said. “A lot of Generation Y, the younger group, really wants the work-life balance, and they’re not going to work for you if they don’t get it.”

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