Family_Leave_body.jpgby Robert Lerose.


The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) gives workers up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for family events such as the birth of a child or looking after an ailing parent. Eligible employees must have worked at least 1,250 hours over the past 12 months for a business that employs a minimum of 50 workers within a 75-mile radius. A few states have more lenient qualifications, but the requirements of the federal law do not cover a significant part of the small business workforce. What are the ramifications of this and how can they be addressed? Is family leave an advantage for, or an unfair burden on, a small business? As owners and workers grapple with these issues every day across the country, here are some things to consider. 


Increases worker loyalty

Businesses that do offer paid family leave are the exception, as the United States is one of the few countries in the world that do not require it. Advocates for paid family leave argue that it actually works to the employer's advantage because employees tend to be more devoted to businesses that strongly support them.


"When workers come back, they tend to be more loyal and focused, feel greater happiness, and a resolve to do a good job," says Vicki Shabo, vice president of the National Partnership For Women & Families, a Washington, DC-based nonprofit that was instrumental in getting the FMLA passed in 1993. "They're grateful for being able to take the time that they needed to get their kids off to the right start. Or, in the cases of those caring for seriously ill family members, to be able to spend that time and not have their attention divided when they're working."


Coming up with a sensible paid family leave plan that is fair to both the small business and the employee will naturally vary depending on the individual workplace, but Shabo says that policies should be gender neutral and cover at least a portion of the worker's wages. Businesses also come out ahead since returning employees don't have to be retrained and can get up to speed much faster than a new hire.


Although some managers might encourage employees to take time off when they need it, attitudes can be hard to change. For example, a recent study found that more than half of the fathers who worked at companies that offered paternity leave used only a few days of the time they were entitled to. This is a mistake, Shabo says, since paternity leave lets fathers cement a permanent bond with their child and, at the same time, help new moms recover faster and resume their careers.


"I think it's really important to dispel the myths that people might misuse the program, concerns that this is outrageously expensive, or that people might take more time than they need," Shabo says. "That's really not what the evidence shows at all."


Family_Leave_PQ.jpgDesign a plan

Since the definition of family leave has expanded to include caring for a sick parent and, in some cases, dealing with problems posed by the military deployment of a family member, small businesses that actively get their employees involved in developing policies are likely to be more successful and equitable.


"When employees have a voice in helping to design the plan, they are really helpful in taking into account the needs of their business and their own," says Ellen Bravo, executive director of Family Values @ Work, a national network of coalitions that advocates for family-friendly workplace polices. "Obviously the policy you design is best done to apply to all family leave purposes," which can minimize the resentment that some employees without children may feel.


Bravo says that the plan should also cover how to handle the responsibilities of the employee about to go out on leave to make the transition more seamless. For example, before the employee leaves, have them put together a document with the work that they do, current projects that they're involved with, and their key contacts. Next, assign specific responsibilities to the team members remaining.


"Even though it might seem counter-intuitive, customers appreciate that employers are paying attention and have a plan," Bravo says. "So if you say to a customer: 'Jim, I'm going to be out on maternity leave and I'm so happy to introduce you to my colleague Don who's going to be taking over your account while I'm gone,' then you've made the connection. They know each other. They're prepared for it. And this person also understands the client's needs. That's a really good thing."


Be flexible

Some small business owners find that they have unique advantages over large companies when it comes to formulating a family leave policy.


"There's more likelihood for customization, whereas in large companies they have a much harder time looking at each case separately," says Kari Firestone, the president and co-founder of Aureus Asset Management, a Boston-based independent investment firm. "When you have standardized policies, they're often not very flexible."


Founded in 2005, Aureus has 12 employees and offers a mix of fixed and flexible family leave policies. Employees are eligible for up to six weeks of paid leave with the option of taking more time unpaid. Aureus is also open to discussing other scenarios with workers on leave, such as working part-time or some kind of at home/on-site combination arrangement. "We've been able to be both flexible and, I think, loyal to the employee in a way that creates more loyalty back to our company," Firestone explains.


When the wife of an Aureus employee had a baby about a year ago, Firestone strongly encouraged the father to take the several weeks of paid leave that he was entitled. Instead, he took about 10 days. There's still reluctance on the part of fathers to take time off "because they think they'll lose their place and they'll seem soft to management," Firestone says. "I consider it a virtue. And I think we all at this firm feel the same way—it's important that the fathers are there both to support their wives or partners and bond with their babies."


Firestone has tried different ways to cover for employees out on leave, including hiring temp help. She understands how other employers might not see the immediate benefit of offering some type of paid leave, "but I think that's short-sighted. It matters to me to be forward thinking and positive toward the concept of parental leave as we can be."