“I got so frustrated,” Jess Svabenik tells The Guardian. “The people who work upstairs, when they get pregnant, they get 12, 18 weeks. And then just below you, the person who makes your latte every day goes for six weeks. And they work in the same building. How can you not get that? How can you not see the person who makes your latte every day?”
Svabenik, like many Americans, is struggling to deal with her lack of parental leave. Her job at Starbucks and her husband’s at Trader Joe’s offer little wiggle room, but their rigorous work schedules (John gets up at 3 am) are not conducive to raising a newborn. And they’re not alone. Only three states—California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island—currently have state-funded paid family leave laws, while New York, Washington D.C., and Washington state will see them enacted in the next few years.
The federal Family Medical Leave Act guarantees a full-time working mother of 12 weeks of unpaid leave—but for many, unpaid leave is just not a viable option. And with America being one of only four countries without guaranteed paid leave, many are left vulnerable to their employer’s leave policy. If you’re a part-time or retail worker, that’s likely to be less than generous—if it exists at all.
Meanwhile, women around the country (who, by the way, are the breadwinners for 40% of families with children in America) are struggling to cope. The New America Foundation has said the ideal length of time parents should have is 26 weeks of paid leave between the two of them, but in actuality, families receive far less. While support for mandatory paid leave is rising, it’s still hard to come by: only 14% of Americans get paid leave through their employer. But a disproportionate amount of those are white collar and corporate workers. As Svabenik describes, it’s not unusual for companies to offer paid leave to its corporate workers and not it’s lower-paid retail workers.
It’s difficult to imagine how an employer could rationalize bestowing benefits on only a portion of its workforce. In Svabenik’s case, she is—sadly—one of the lucky ones. Starbucks gives six weeks of partial pay to mothers who have been there for a certain length of time. But fathers and adoptive parents get none, which leaves LGBT parents in the dust. “Our current and now expanded parental leave benefits,” Starbucks says, “exceed what most retailers provide full- or part-time workers.” That may be true. But new mothers working in their corporate office receive 16 weeks of fully paid leave, while fathers and adoptive parents get 12. “In this country, the people that drive the economy every day are the ones getting the short end of the stick,” Svabenik tells The Guardian. “You’re made to feel like, if you’re a lower-wage worker, you should have done something else with your life if you wanted to spend time with your kids.”
Unfortunately, Starbucks is correct when they argue that they provide better benefits than some. Walmart, Kroger, Nike, and Marriott are just some of the corporations offering no paid leave at all. Yum! Brands, owner of chains such as KFC, Pizza Hut, and Taco Bell, employs hundreds of thousands of US workers, and none of the staff working the restaurants get any paid leave. Yet birth mothers working in the headquarters get 16 weeks. At Amazon, it’s 20 weeks for full-time birth mothers and nothing for those in the warehouse. While all parents deserve adequate paid leave (a guarantee in so many other countries), there is something especially perverse about a company recognizing the need for its corporate employees while denying it to its lower paid staff—people who are much more likely to have trouble affording child care to being with.
The worst part? It doesn’t have to be this way. It is possible to treat your retail and corporate employees equally, to give part-time workers the same benefits of those working full-time while still flourishing. Wells Fargo and Nordstrom give all new mothers at least 12 weeks of paid leave, though they do give less to fathers and adoptive parents. Bank of America and Ikea give all new parents 16 weeks. These are huge companies with huge profits. If they can do it, why can’t others?
A recent survey of company policy found that, in America, paid leave is “an elite benefit," while in so many other countries, it’s a guaranteed right. Until national and state legislation catches up, the onus is on employers to provide leave for the employees—all of their employees.