How Cashiers and Clerks Could Actually Get Paid Parental Leave

By Rachel Feintzeig Features Dow Jones Newswires

In recent years, corporations such as Microsoft Corp., Blackstone Group LP and Credit Suisse Group AG have added generous paid-leave policies to give employees time to bond with their newborns.

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But for most American workers, having a child often means taking unpaid time off, a situation that can stress finances and wreak havoc with family schedules.

Many of those workers would stand to get relief under a proposal in President Donald Trump's budget to provide six weeks of paid time off for new mothers and fathers.

The proposal, estimated to cost $19 billion over a decade, likely will be rewritten as Congress crafts its own budget resolutions over the next few months, though that process traditionally takes into account White House priorities. Political support for paid leave is building in some cities and states. and Ivanka Trump, daughter of Mr. Trump and an adviser to him, has adopted family leave as a signature issue.

The U.S. is the only nation among 41 that doesn't mandate paid parental leave, according to data complied by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Under the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act, workers are entitled to 12 weeks of unpaid leave. Many new parents also take time off by using their employers' short-term disability benefits, though those policies often only cover a portion of their wages for some of their leave.

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In the U.S., 13% of private-industry workers had access to any kind of paid family leave, according to March 2016 statistics from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the most recent available. Restaurant and retail chains like Yum! Brands Inc. have introduced new paid-leave benefits for corporate employees, but the workers who stock shelves and ring up customers rarely have paid parental leave.

Tiffani Hyltonfell behind on rent, water and electric payments while taking a six-week, partially-paid leave from Wal-Mart in 2016 following the birth of her daughter, Annabelle. Back at work baking doughnuts and bread in a Troy, Ohio., store, she felt sore, exhausted and longed to be with her daughter. After cutting back her hours, she left Wal-Mart last summer.

"Six weeks fully paid, that would have saved me months of stress," she said. "It would have kept us from being stuck in extra debt for months on end, worrying about how we were going to pay for food and diapers."

Salaried employees of Wal-Mart Stores Inc. are entitled to 10 weeks of fully paid maternity leave after the arrival of a child; hourly workers can file for some pay using a short-term disability benefit if they qualify.

This fall, Starbucks Corp. will give mothers working in its stores six weeks of fully paid parental paid leave. Some baristas have criticized the coffee chain for giving mothers in its corporate headquarters up to 18 weeks at full pay.

At a shareholders meeting earlier this year, Kristen Picciolo, a barista at a Medina, Ohio, store, asked company leaders to give all Starbucks workers equal leave. "I know as a parent how important it is to spend those first few months with your new baby," she said during the meeting.

A Starbucks spokesman said that the company is constantly evaluating its benefits based on employee feedback.

"You will not find another company that has pioneered more innovative benefits for full- and part-time employees," he said in a statement.

A March report from Pew Research Center found that mothers with household incomes under $30,000 took a median maternity leave of six weeks; those whose households bring in at least $75,000 took 12 weeks. Some 14% of restaurant employers provide paid maternity leave for hourly workers, according to a 2016 survey from research firm TDn2K.

In the U.S., months of time off to care for a newborn "is a very elite benefit," said Brianna Cayo Cotter, chief of staff for Paid Leave for the U.S., a nonprofit advocacy group.

Joe Kefauver, managing partner of Align Public Strategies LLC, which advises retailers -- and restaurant companies like Wendy's Co. -- on public-policy issues, said that companies in industries like technology absorb such benefits more easily than low-margin businesses like fast-food chains.

"It's not an insensitivity to the employee," he said. "It's a sensitivity to the business model."

Whatever the prospects are for Mr. Trump's parental-leave proposal, advocates say momentum for the ideas is building at the state and local levels. Last year, Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed a law that phases in a paid family leave program starting in 2018; by 2021, it's set to provide 12 weeks of paid leave. The Washington, D.C. city council also last year approved a paid family leave program, which includes eight weeks of leave for new parents.

When her son was born, Ms. Picciolo, the Starbucks barista, moved in with her mother, went on a payment plan with her electric company and turned to food pantries for wipes and diapers.

Her boyfriend, Seth Gibson, picked up extra waiting and bartending shifts at Ruby Tuesday, returning to work the day after the birth of the couple's child. Money was a constant worry. Paid leave for either parent would have eased some of the pressure, he said.

"Just the security...of knowing you have that income, that you have time -- oh my gosh, it would have been so nice," he said.

Write to Rachel Feintzeig at rachel.feintzeig@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

June 06, 2017 08:14 ET (12:14 GMT)