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What Can Parental Leave Look Like at an Early-Stage Startup?

Sarah HallamFeatures
Parental leave

One in four mothers in the U.S. returns to work two weeks after childbirth. Image Credit: Jenny Nilsson.

The U.S. is the only developed country in the world without mandated paid parental leave policies. Years of research have revealed longer time off for parents immediately after childbirth leads to healthier and more productive employees, yet the onus is entirely on businesses to pick up the slack.

Depending on the state or the industry, it can be challenging to get a generous amount of paid time off as a new parent. It’s even rarer to find benefits for a secondary caregiver or a partner. Right now, one in four mothers in the U.S. will go back to work two weeks after childbirth, while secondary caregivers (like fathers and spouses) return on average after just one week.

In recent years, the tech industry has been revered for its generous parental leave policies and higher quality of life offered to its employees compared to more legacy industries, like finance.

But often the playing field is skewed towards bigger companies that have the means and resources to offer more generous leave policies. For example, Google offers up to 18 weeks of paid leave for new parents, a policy it’s had since 2007. But for businesses just starting out, finding a balance between generous parental policies and financial and labor costs can be daunting.

The Org spoke to seven tech startups, with team sizes ranging from 11 to 70, about how they generated parental leave policies that supported new parents and were affordable for the company.

Great parental leave attracts great talent

The biggest challenge among the startups was the balance between wanting to give generous parental leave and being able to afford it. “There are larger companies offering super generous parental leave packages, some including paid time off for up to a year,” Angela Benz, Head of People at the Austin-based startup Pushnami, says. “It was challenging to come up with a policy that was competitive in the tech industry but also wouldn't hurt our business, as a smaller company of only 40 people.”

Benz and her team eventually settled on three months paid leave, three months of uninterrupted medical insurance coverage, and six months of job security for primary caregivers.

It could also be in a startup’s best interest to budget for generous parental leave policies rather than have to replace a vital employee. That’s the mindset Amanda Kelly, COO of Streamlit, had when she first joined the company.

“To me, it is very much about attracting great talent, especially women, and increasingly men as well,” Kelly says. “Extracting people from some of the best companies in the world means we need to offer not just competitive cash salaries and benefits, but also things like parental leave.”

She says for people leaving companies like Google to join a startup, who might want to start a family in the next couple of years, having the promise of parental leave is paramount.

Having a policy is better than no policy at all

Director of HR at Boston-based startup Soofa Molly LaFlesh says most startups she knows don’t even have a policy in place.

She says she’s heard stories of expectant mothers having to repeatedly ask what their leave policy was going to look like, in some cases up until a month before their due date. “They would be told a few days before they went out that they could have a month off,” LaFlesh says. “You don’t need that kind of stress when you’re about to have the biggest change of your life and to your body.”

This was top of mind when LaFlesh helped develop 30-person strong Soofa’s own plan — which gives eight weeks of paid leave to primary caregivers, and an additional four weeks full-time pay for 20 hours of work. Like many smaller startups, Soofa also relies on Massachusetts' Paid Family Medical Leave Act, which allows anyone in the state to take up to 26 weeks of paid time off for medical or family reasons. Leaning on any of these sorts of policies can be a huge help in covering the costs of longer parental leave.

Having a policy in place also signals company culture to potential talent. Vanesa Ortiz was two-and-a-half months pregnant when she was hired by San Francisco-based Sourcegraph. She says knowing the company had a policy in place made her feel safe about asking for more details, even though she did not reveal she was pregnant.

“Despite being so small, they already had all the parental leave information documented,” Ortiz says.

Factoring secondary caregivers into the equation

Extended parental leave policies for secondary caregivers, like fathers or partners, are becoming increasingly popular — if not necessary — to stay competitive.

PLANOLY, a social media strategy startup based in Austin, kept this in mind when putting together its paid leave benefits. “We do not define maternity versus paternity leave,” Christina Wells, VP of People, says. “We look at caregivers, regardless of self-identified gender, as equal and our primary and secondary caregivers are eligible for the full 12-weeks of paid parental leave.”

An added bonus startups can offer? Allowing any primary or secondary caregivers, regardless of tenure, the same paid leave options.

“At first we were not quite sure of eligibility,” Wells says. “If someone joins the company and goes on parental leave in their first month, do we give them the full 12-weeks paid leave?”

Ultimately, the answer is yes, she says. “To be most inclusive, we realize that 12 weeks is a short amount of time in comparison to someone’s years of loyal tenure.”

Paid leave isn’t the only benefit you can offer

While paid leave is a precious resource for new parents, there are more ways to support employees than just time off. Vanesa Ortiz from Sourcegraph says her company went the extra mile to support her through every step of her pregnancy, and her return back to the office.

“When I had the baby, we were moving to a new office and the new office didn't have a nursing room. So they decided to build one,” she says, adding she was the only pregnant person in the predominantly male 20-employee company.

“But they took it upon themselves to build me an entire nursing room for myself and paid for my pump and anything I needed to support the breastfeeding journey," Ortiz says.

Another thing to consider is red tape. The time and cost of filing paperwork for paid leave and cutting through the legal weeds can be time-consuming, confusing and ultimately ripe for error. Ortiz and Kelly both suggest if a company doesn’t already have a person in-house to help with this, hiring outside help can be a huge benefit to expecting parents.

Communication is key

On the flip side of parental leave is filling in for the team member that is taking time off. And like any situation involving a team member leaving or being away — communicating with all team members about distributing responsibilities is key and can be adopted into a startup’s policies.

Karen Mascavage, Head of People at Mulberry Technology, said part of the challenge at her company of 55 people was finding coverage.

“The key to that is planning ahead to make sure that there is something in place to cover the person so they can go on leave without feeling stressed about it,” she says. That could involve hiring an outside contractor, and definitely involves working together to map out a plan for absences and returns, she says.

Communicating with parents while they are out on leave also makes rejoining the team easier, Natasha Fahey, Director of Operations at Perceptive Automata, says. “For instance, we just did a workplace study about how we are going to return to the office, we made sure the person out on maternity leave was a part of that conversation, because even though she’s gone right now, she’s coming back and is going to be part of our company.”

Being out on parental leave can also be difficult and sometimes isolating. Fahey says her company makes an effort to invite those on leave to social events to make sure they continue to feel a part of the culture.

Finally, no policy would be complete without including the voices of those it will directly impact, and no one knows that more than Streamlit’s Amanda Kelly, who was very invested in her company’s policy as its first recipient.

“I had the distinction of being the first and second woman to take maternity leave,” Kelly says. “My belly was growing as they were basically making the policies, so I was very involved.”

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