One of the positive compliments I often hear from non-Jews is how much emphasis we place on family and tradition. I love hearing that because I believe that these two things have contributed to our sustainability against seemingly overwhelming odds.
Yet, it is a dismaying fact that Jewish organizations and agencies have lagged behind the already-dismal numbers of workplaces that provide even a minimal amount of leave when a new child enters a family.
The United States is the only industrialized nation without mandated paid parental leave. Currently, only 12% of US workers have access to paid family leave. Twelve percent! And the average amount of time offered by even the most generous companies, according to Working Mother’s annual list of best companies for working mothers, is just seven weeks.
This is a shocking statistic for a country which prides itself on its forward-thinking approach to most things. We cheer when a woman is named assistant coach to an NFL team; we applaud when a woman is elected into office. These aspirations are realized in the very same country where women are often forced to return to work too soon after the birth of their baby in order to pay bills and keep food on the table.
Perhaps this is what was so astonishing about the announcement from Netfilx earlier this week regarding their move to grant as much paid leave to new parents for up to a year after the birth or adoption.
In its wake, other companies are making dramatic changes to their policy. Just the day after the Netflix announcement, Microsoft announced its move to 20 fully paid weeks of leave for moms and 12 for dads.
This past March, global telecommunications firm, Vodaphone, launched a global minimum leave policy of 16 weeks paid leave for all new mothers. Upon return, they will receive full pay for working a 30-hour week. This benefit, they believe, will allow new moms to make the transition back into the workplace without undermining their salary or their career.
If the Jewish community is serious about encouraging those who choose to have families while remaining in the workforce, it must partner with men and women who want to rear a family by providing them with the financial scaffolding to make it a viable option. Countries such as Sweden and France, for example, offer financial incentives that allow parents to take the necessary time with their children without sacrificing salary or job advancement. Israel’s national insurance program grants all women 14 weeks of fully paid leave, with options to extend, and it can be shared with her male partner.
In other words, since our tradition encourages us to have children, companies that support us in making those choices partner with us to fulfill that obligation. Which makes it all the more disappointing when Jewish non-profits aren’t at forefront of such measures that would practice what we preach about family values.
That’s not to say that there aren’t proactive examples of encouraging one to “be fruitful and multiply.” Amongst the liberal Jewish rabbinic movements, for example, there is real awareness for the need for generous leave. The Conservative Movement’s Rabbinical Assembly contract includes three months of paid leave. The Reform Movement suggests at least two months of paid leave, while the Reconstructionist movement recommends eight weeks for the primary parent.
1n 2009, Advancing Women Professional surveyed Jewish organizations across the country and discovered that 65% did not grant any paid parental leave. Recognizing the disconnect between the policies and the values espoused by these organizations, AWP established the “Better Work, Better Life” project; an initiative with the goal of recruiting 100 Jewish organizations to adopt paid leave and/or formal flexibility. Though initially met with resistance, the campaign has nearly reached their goal of enlisting 100 Jewish non-profits. It is by no means a completed task; however, it is an important step in the right direction.
Flexibility in the workplace allows working parents to strengthen the bonds with their new addition and sets up the new parents for success both at home and at work. Great Jewish values.
But it goes beyond that.
Maternity leave occurs at the most critical time in the life of the infant. It reduces the amount of sick time for both baby and mother, decreases the infant mortality rate, and promotes essential bonding.
In other words, this is a health issue. And it affects all of us.
Caring for the health of the community is so important to Jewish tradition that Maimonides, the 12th c. Jewish philosopher, commentator, and physician, lists health care as the first item (out of 10) of the most important services a community can offer its residents. Providing for the well-being of the community is a societal obligation.
So yes, we celebrate the efforts of Netflix and other companies who make these very Jewish decisions when they decide to place value on the individual as both an employee and the guardian of future generations.