Spokane Journal of Business

Commentary: Paid leave is sound business practice

Idaho attorney cites five reasons employers should provide perk

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Offering paid parental leave for all employees isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s also a sound business practice.

As the co-owner of one of the fastest growing law firms in Idaho, I’m hyperfocused on how to recruit and retain top talent at Smith + Malek. With three offices across Idaho, Smith + Malek employs 11 full-time attorneys, most of them females under age 40, and another seven full-time staff members.

Even as a midsized firm, we managed to adopt a 12-week parental leave policy that is 100% paid starting this fall. To qualify, a staff member must be employed by the firm for one year and have worked at least 1,250 hours over the previous year. Our policy covers the birth of an employee’s child or the placement of a child with an employee in connection with adoption or foster care. Unlike most businesses that offer parental leave, we don’t require employees to first use up their paid time off before their parental leave kicks in.

Paid parental leave is far outside the norm in the U.S., which is the only industrialized nation without it. Five states, including Washington, plus the District of Columbia, require employers to provide some form of paid family leave, but there’s no federal mandate, and Idaho lacks any paid family leave.

The federal Family & Medical Leave Act, which provides for unpaid, job-protected leave, only applies to public agencies and institutions and, in the private realm, companies with more than 50 employees. So, with a team of 18, Smith + Malek is the exception among businesses of our size.

Here are five reasons we chose to adopt a progressive paid parental leave policy. We hope more small and medium-sized businesses in our region will do the same.

A competitive advantage: The Society for Human Resource Management found that only 12% of U.S. companies with fewer than 100 employees offer paid maternity leave. Embracing what makes Smith + Malek different – a family-friendly workplace culture – offers us a competitive advantage in our industry, as the field of law isn’t exactly known for innovation or embracing attorneys who are also working parents.

Idaho workers need it: According to 2019 data from the National Partnership for Women & Families, 71% of Idahoans can’t access even unpaid parental leave under the Family & Medical Leave Act, because they work for small businesses. Sixty-one percent of Idaho families rely on two working parents, and 51% of Latinas and 46% of white women in Idaho are the primary breadwinners for their families.  

Top talent demands it: Fifty-eight percent of U.S. workers want paid family leave from their employers, including 64% of millennials, according to a report by Unum, the benefits provider. In a recent poll, paid family leave outranked other perks like flexible and remote working options and even student loan repayment assistance. Yet, according to SHRM, just 6% of companies with 50 or more employees offer fully paid leave, and FMLA provides only for job protection during their unpaid leave.

We need to retain female workers: According to a New York Times article that surveyed economists on the issue, paid leave increases the likelihood that mothers return to employment later, and then work more hours and earn higher wages. This is important because American women drop out of the labor force at much higher rates than our European peers, largely due to the high cost of childcare and lack of paid leave options during this important, vulnerable time.

It’s the right thing to do: Happy lawyers provide better work product for clients, and we firmly believe in our firm’s mission of making tomorrow better for our employees and the communities in which we live and work.

Tara Malek  is co-owner and chief litigator at Smith + Malek. She’s a former Assistant U.S. Attorney and a graduate of the University of Idaho College of Law.

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