Unlimited vacation? Regular remote working opportunities? Waitr gift cards? They’re among the perks Baton Rouge’s small business owners are giving their employees in order to compete with larger corporations touting paid leave for new parents, family caregivers and others.
The competition is getting fiercer. As a vocal workforce demands better work-life balance, U.S. companies are responding with luxurious incentives. Take a look at Netflix’s unlimited paid parental leave, or IKEA extending its four months of paid parental leave to part-time employees who have worked there at least a year. Then there’s American Express, which—in addition to the five months’ of paid parental leave it gives employees—is offering new mothers an extra eight weeks of paid medical leave, as well as all-day access to a lactation consultant and the ability to ship their breast milk home on the company’s dime.
The question is how do privately-held companies, especially small businesses, compete for top-tier talent in a corporate world where benefits matter to the most sought-after employees more than ever? Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that only 13% of privately-held company employees have access to formal paid family leave.
Sure, most employers must provide their workers with job-protected and unpaid leave for qualified medical and family reasons under the U.S. Family Leave and Medical Act of 1993. But in the absence of a pay requirement, some Baton Rouge small businesses—typically armed with fewer financial resources and less human capital than their larger or publicly-traded competitors—are hesitant to adopt what they call a “one-size-fits all” paid leave policy. Instead, they are turning to more innovative approaches to employee leave.
Whether it’s paid family leave or another incentive, local businesses are exploring different ways to entice new hires, retain existing employees and boost company morale by reexamining their benefits packages.
Often, it helps to know what the competition is offering. Having previously worked for PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), Emergent Method President Nick Speyrer launched his company knowing that, while he couldn’t match PwC’s two months of paid parental leave and up to $25,000 in adoption and surrogacy reimbursements, he could mirror the public accounting firm’s philosophical approach to worker productivity.
“[PwC] was focused on outcomes. They trusted people to do the right thing and rewarded them heavily for it,” says Speyrer, whose nearly 30 employees have unlimited paid time off as well as regular remote working opportunities at client sites and home.
Speyrer’s mostly 20- and 30-something-year-old employees use the policy for reasons beyond maternity or paternity leave. For example, one recently worked remotely for a week so she could spend time with her best friend, whose mother had just passed away.
Of course, there are potential downsides to what seems like a standing offer on vacation. It occasionally poses a challenge for Rob Wise, owner and CEO of Baton Rouge IT services company ITinspired, who needs six of his 15 employees working at a given time to keep business operations running smoothly, with three of them staffed in the office to take phone calls.
“It can be tough. We’ve gotten down to bare-bones operations after a few life events,” Wise says, recalling an instance earlier this year when a handful of employees took several days off to go to San Antonio for a former employee’s wedding. “We try to accommodate, but if you’re taking a work phone call when you’re on vacation, it can blur the lines on a work-life balance.”
But the tradeoffs are minimal compared to the payoffs, Wise says. In fact, ITinspired switched to an unlimited paid time off system from offering paid maternity, paternity and adoption leave just a few weeks ago. Wise says he’s already noticed how the new system promotes workers’ mental health and serves as a more attractive recruiting tool as the company embarks on a “nimble” hiring spree.
Potentially burdensome side effects, he says, are often mitigated through clear internal communication. Employees set their own return dates, while employers let temporary hires know when their contract will expire.
Listening to what your employees want is also critical, says ThreeSixtyEight CEO Kenny Nguyen, who’s ironing out a new paid parental leave policy, joining the ranks of 48% of companies in Business Report’s 2018 Best Places to Work that offered its employees either fully- or partially-paid parental leave.
The creative agency’s new policy will top off a series of existing employee-recommended perks the agency offers, including quarterly team field trips and massages, monthly Friday half-days, and “work-from-home Wednesdays.” Also planned is an employee hotline for workers to discuss personal and professional issues they’re facing, as well as a couple weekends’ worth of comped Waitr gift cards for employees on maternity or paternity leave.
“Build on the perks that really elevate and add to your company culture,” Nguyen says. “Your employees are your most important customers.”
The local small business owners are among 82% nationwide who report handling leave on a case-by-case basis, according to Dawn Starns, Louisiana state director of the National Federation of Independent Businesses. Both employers and employees appreciate the flexibility, says Starns, in a state where as many businesses closed as opened in the last quarter of 2017.
This increased workplace flexibility also comes amid simultaneous legislative pushes—both at the state and federal levels—for the creation of a paid family leave policy mandate.
State Sen. J.P. Morrell, D-New Orleans, is sponsoring legislation that would create a state-run fund to pay out partial paychecks to working Louisianans, allowing them to take up to 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave, which also includes caregiving and spending time with family members on military deployments. Employers would pay 45% into the fund, with employees covering the remaining 55%.
“I’d encourage business owners to think, at some point you’re going to have an employee who has a baby or needs chemo, and they’re taking that leave regardless,” says political consultant Caitlin Berni, speaking on behalf of the Louisiana Families First Coalition. “Under this, you’d have revenue to hire temp workers, and it lets you retain the employees you’ve already invested in.”
Leading the opposition are the NFIB and the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry. Jim Patterson, LABI legislative director, says businesses that are capable of offering paid leave and want to, already do, and the decision to do so should be left up to private employers.
Meanwhile, U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy, a Republican from Baton Rouge, is working on co-sponsoring a bipartisan effort with Arizona Democrat Kyrsten Sinema to establish a federal mandate for six weeks of paid parental leave. Cassidy says he and Sinema are targeting the benefit to parents, especially mothers, who make less than $70,000 a year and aren’t already offered paid leave.
Federal legislation is expected to be ready by this summer.