The digital streaming company's groundbreaking benefit is unparalleled in the American workplace. So what's the catch?
Netflix has taken a bold and decisive stance in its new policy: Employees will now be eligible for unlimited, paid family leave for the entire year after the birth or adoption of a child. According to the new standards, employees can choose to work full-time, part-time, or take the entire time off. They can choose the length and time frame, up to a full calendar year, as well.
This new policy puts Netflix in an entirely new corporate category. No other company offers unlimited, paid family leave for an entire year. In fact, few even offer paid family leave at all.
There is no national law mandating paid maternity leave, making the United States the only advanced economy to fail to do so. Of the 185 countries covered under the International Labour Organization, the U.S. is one of only two countries, along with Papua New Guinea, that does not mandate paid maternity leave. Instead, we have a patchwork system of dismal options that few are able to take advantage of at all.
Under the Family and Medical Leave Act, employees can take 12 weeks off, unpaid, after the birth of a child and be guaranteed that their job will be waiting for them when they return. But that only applies to companies of 50 or more employees, and because it’s unpaid, many new parents can’t financially afford to take that time off. According to the Society for Human Resource Management, only 21 percent of companies offer paid maternity leave and 17 percent offer paid paternity leave. The vast majority of working American families don’t have any option for paid leave for an event as seismic and life-changing as the birth or adoption of a child.
Netflix’s new policy is comparatively progressive, considering it doesn’t just extend paid leave to birth mothers; fathers are also covered, as are adoptive parents. The amount of time Netflix is offering, up to one year, is the most of any U.S. company. But there are others who offer far more generous paid family leave than the U.S. mandates. According to Business Insider, it is largely tech companies who are paving the way with paid parental leave benefits. Twitter offers 20 weeks of full paid leave to new mothers, and 10 weeks for other new parents. Facebook and Instagram employees are afforded 17 weeks of paid leave that can be spread out over the course of a year. Google, which provides full pay and stock and vesting options during leave, allows new mothers 18 weeks and 12 weeks for other caregivers.
It is against this backdrop that Netflix has announced its new groundbreaking policy. On the surface, it seems like a major feminist victory. Paid family leave, for both new mothers and new fathers, is basic common sense. If you want your employees to be happy and productive, you need to be able to provide basic benefits.
But the seemingly progressive family-leave policies of the tech industry belie a more grim reality: Netflix’s new policy grants an unlimited amount of paid family leave for a year to the employees on its streaming side only. It excludes the employees of its DVD division. Of the 261 part-time or temporary employees Netflix has, most of them are on the DVD side, paid hourly, not by salary, and therefore ineligible for the new benefit. Essentially, Netflix seems to be saying that tech developers are worth an investment and its hourly workers are not. Frankly, the fact that a year’s worth of paid family leave is a radical and groundbreaking move is a dismal display of the wrongheaded American ethos around work and family life.
And that ethos isn’t going to change overnight—it could actually end up making the new Netflix policy void and meaningless.
In the U.S., we’re trained to go to work every day, take limited vacation, and be as productive as possible. Otherwise, you run the risk of losing your job and for many, losing your health insurance and quite possibly even your home. For the 40 percent of American households headed by a single mother, that fear is compounded—if you lose your job, how do you care for your child?
The change in Netflix’s policy doesn’t address this cultural undercurrent, and it could possibly exacerbate it for its employees. It’s one thing to be given a year’s worth of paid family leave, but this gives employees the option of taking a year’s worth of family leave. While that may signal that the power is seemingly in the hands of the employee, it may feel very different on the ground.
Employees may want to take a few days here and a few days there, or perhaps they want to take every day for the entire year. But the question is, will they? It seems as though they have been given the option to do so, but it’s entirely possible that Netflix employees will feel guilty and fearful if they do in fact take the amount of time they have been allotted. As Bryce Covert noted over at ThinkProgress , unlimited paid leave may actually leave employees feeling trapped and confused. In fact, they may even end up taking less time off because they are overwhelmed by the choice and unsure how to navigate it.
What we really need is a strong federal law that mandates paid family leave for all companies. We can’t rely on individual companies to change the American culture of all-work-no-play; that is the job of the federal government. In Europe, paid family leave isn’t just offered; it is an expectation. You are given paid family leave and you take it. It doesn’t just apply to new mothers; all new parents, regardless of gender identity, are eligible for and are expected to take paid family leave because it is seen as their right. The United States needs to stop seeing paid family leave as a luxury and start seeing it as an inalienable right.
While it is commendable that Neflix has introduced this new benefit, this is a single company with a single policy. This does nothing for the 25 percent of working American mothers who are forced to go back to work within 10 days of giving birth because they don’t have paid leave. We need paid family leave for all new parents, birth and adoptive, and we need the federal government to mandate it.
Every new parent should feel free to stay at home with their new baby, free from financial or job security anxiety. Until we mandate paid parental leave nationwide, Netflix’s policy is just a drop in an oversized bucket.
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