I’m a staff attorney at the Sustainable Economies Law Center and my baby is due very soon. Together, along with my co-workers Alejandra Cruz and Jay Cumberland, whose baby was born November 2021, last year we proposed a bold policy change: support staff members by providing 40 weeks of paid parental leave.
The Sustainable Economies Law Center is a nonprofit organization democratically run by staff co-stewards who are caring, trusting, and radical. To give you a picture of our organizational culture, here are some of the policies that already make us unique:
- We have a needs-based salary calculator that starts off by treating all staff members, including lawyers and legal apprentices, equally.
- We have a paid “free time off” policy, meaning staff take the time off they need without arbitrary limits, and instead focus on achieving agreed-upon deliverables rather than hours on the clock.
- We enjoy a 30-hour work week with benefits.
- We earn a 3-month paid sabbatical after 5 years of working.
Still, the proposal for a 40-week paid parental leave policy proposal was controversial. Along with my two co-workers, I helped draft an organizational policy proposal to support pregnant people and new parents. It poured out of us with joyful optimism, out of love for the women and children we’ve encountered and supported over the years. We came with a fire in our bellies ignited by the capitalist devaluing of motherhood, in particular Black and Brown motherhood. We had decolonizing healing on our minds. And we were surprised at the tensions and conflict that arose during this process. We’ve learned that even acts of radical care for one another can be painful to process when so many of us still carry unprocessed trauma.
When we first formed our three-person ad hoc committee to draft this proposal, two of us—Jay and myself—were set on proposing a 22-week parental leave policy. At one of our planning meetings, Alejandra shared why she chose to take a year to bond with her daughter when she was born and the financial and societal pressure she felt to go back to work before she was ready. She shared with us her rationale for taking the time she needed despite internalized resistance. She said, “think about how much the world and our employers expect of us, as individuals, to work our entire lives. Then think about how little time we’re asking for to take care of ourselves and our babies.”
So we decided to regroup in two weeks after doing more research. Jay looked up scientific bases for different amounts of weeks. I researched policies from other companies and countries. And Alejandra, who primarily works on land rematriation at the Law Center, researched Indigenous practices.
When we regrouped, Jay shared that while birthing parents need 26 weeks to recover, infants really benefit from their parents having 40 weeks of paid parental leave. A 2017 study published by the Better Life Lab at the New American Foundation noted, based on international studies of the paid leave policies of a range of European nations, that job-protected paid leave of 40 weeks showed the greatest reduction to infant mortality. By contrast, the United States is the only one of 41 “wealthy nations” in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) to fail to offer national paid parental leave. Consequently, it has one of the highest rates of infant mortality among these countries, as well as a high incidence of sudden infant death syndrome. California alone saw 1,879 infant deaths in 2019. Another study found that unpaid leave does not result in the same benefits, presumably because those who are unable to afford it would continue to work.
This convinced us to propose 40 weeks. Paid.
Making the Case to Our Colleagues
The logic for adopting extended paid leave is unassailable, but one problem we faced in our organization is that, in the United States, 12 weeks of unpaid parental leave is the norm. For years we have provided 12 weeks of paid family leave to our staff. But we argued that this time-period was the norm for purely political reasons. Originally, advocates of the Family and Medical Leave Act proposed a 26-week parental leave. This was based on a medical consensus that mothers need at least six months to recover from postpartum physical and emotional issues. But President George H.W. Bush vetoed the proposal. The following year, the Family and Medical Leave Act passed under President Bill Clinton, but it only provided 12 weeks of unpaid leave and only covered employers with 50 employees or more.
The struggle to create paid federal parental leave continues, but we did not want to wait for public policy to catch up with the need of parents who work at our nonprofit. To address this, we brought our proposal to the bimonthly General Circle meeting, where all fulltime staff convene and make consent-based decisions, like what our wages should be or if we should make a new hire. We urged our coworkers to not let US federal politics define what “normal” or “generous” parental leave should mean.
We cited examples from other countries. Japan provides 36 paid weeks for mothers and 30 for fathers. Germany provides 43 paid weeks for mothers and five for fathers. Norway provides 45 paid weeks for mothers and nine for fathers.
The problem with those examples is that the policies make gendered care assumptions. Our proposal made no distinction between birthing parents and non-birthing-parents because doing so would likely reinforce gender distinctions related to caregiving. We also noted that creating this distinction results in parents who adopt and who foster children having less time to bond than parents who do not, thereby prioritizing biological children over adopted ones. We feel lucky to report that this aspect of our policy proposal did not meet any resistance.
But we did meet a lot of resistance when it came to arguments about the impact this policy would have on our finances and workload. One coworker said they feared what our nonprofit partners and collaborators would think of us if we had such a generous policy. Several coworkers took offense to the fact that we highlighted infant mortality stats because doing so could be interpreted as us saying that if they don’t vote for our proposal, our own babies would die, which is so unlikely because of our privilege as nonprofit professionals with health benefits and a living wage. What we learned through this process is that many people in our workplace have experienced trauma related to birth and loss, and as a larger culture, we don’t have very safe collective ways of dealing with that together. Because of this, lots of personal trauma, pain, resentment, anger, and fear surfaced during the development process of this proposal. At the first go, our proposal didn’t pass because of these concerns.
After an initial vote which included several objections and with Jay only weeks away from parental leave, we wanted to go fast but we learned that sometimes, going slow first will help you go faster later. So, we scheduled one-on-one conversations with some of our co-workers who voted against the proposal and recruited those who voted in support of our proposal to share why they did.
Our coworker Mwende Hinojosa was originally against the proposal, but later supported it. Her fears were that there wasn’t enough organizational capacity to absorb the work of two colleagues with highly specialized skill sets and that we didn’t have the budget or time to hire and onboard temp workers. She suggested 26 weeks would be a more reasonable extension considering the organization’s size. After spending weeks listening to the proposers, taking in the research and their arguments, what ultimately swayed her was the unique personal needs of those who were bringing the proposal. She chose to vote in favor of something that she was not entirely comfortable with as an act of faith and a show of solidarity for two future parents, Mwende being a parent herself.
It’s super common for new parents to leave the workplace after taking minimal parental leave. The average cost to a for-profit business of having to replace an employee is 20 percent of that employee’s salary (consistent regardless of salary level). However, for very highly specialized positions, like ours, the direct and indirect cost of replacing an employee can be far greater, with the replacement cost of senior executives being as high as 213 percent of that employee’s salary.
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After we responded directly to feedback on our proposal, we brought it back to an all-staff meeting for another attempt at passing it. Before the meeting, we scheduled an hour for a “sharing circle” to address all the fears, anger, hurt, and triggers that this proposal raised for many of us. We, the proposers, were surprised that our proposal was so triggering, but we’ve learned that it should be expected when discussing money and family.
Ultimately, those of us advocating for the proposal argued that as a nonprofit law center with nearly 20 remote employees, dozens of volunteer attorneys and interns, loyal donors, and a $2.4 million annual budget, that the Sustainable Economies Law Center was uniquely positioned to absorb the impact of a 40-week paid parental leave policy. And despite some continued disagreement, the entire staff eventually adopted the proposal without any objections.
Addressing Organizational Concerns
Even though the proposal passed by consensus, many at our workplace are still feeling the impact of this proposal and the process by which it was passed. Our Conflict Engagement team, an internal committee of staff who help us work through conflict, felt it necessary to create a staff listening tour to practice deep listening and holding each other with care and compassion. They have gone person-by-person to hear how each staff member has experienced and been impacted by this proposal. The process of synthesizing what they heard is ongoing.
And it should be acknowledged that the policy, although adopted, remains a work in progress. The first person to use the policy went on leave last November, only a few months ago. That said, the organization has taken many steps to make the policy work. This included having a few brilliant colleagues spearhead an Operations Audit where they cataloged every single operations-related role in the organization.
The Operations Audit Team brought everyone on staff together for a work party where the work was laid out in front of us, on a digital jam board: “Who needs to put work down for a bit? Who has the capacity to pick work up? Who wants to permanently rotate out of a role?”
Like a big game of musical chairs, staff worked to rearrange the organization’s collective work and were able to figure out how to keep the work going without spending money or expanding in size. This required choosing to scale down or shutter certain work, grow individual capacities by learning new skills to take on others’ work, and stretching outside of people’s comfort zones to support critical operations like payroll and fundraising.
Additionally, the organization brought two part-time employees up to full-time to help take on more operations work and join our General Circle. These were folks who already had a good understanding of organizational culture and operations, so the onboarding process wasn’t as rigorous or laborious.
It would have been easy to default into a scarcity mindset. Instead, the organization seized the opportunity created by the new leave policy to grow skill sets and new nodes of connection between colleagues.
In hindsight, this shouldn’t be surprising. History has taught us—as with, say, minimum wage policy—that when the value of labor is recognized, it spurs organizational creativity and enhances productivity.
Over the course of several months, the team at the Sustainable Economies Law Center worked hard as a diverse and complex organizational body to consider the needs of current and future colleagues. Arguments were heard; negotiations and compromises were held; and trust in our relationships was strained and tested.
During this same period that our nation’s lawmakers were debating whether Americans should benefit from any paid family leave, staff at the Sustainable Economies Law Center passed a proposal by consensus to give expecting parents 40 weeks of paid leave. For that, all of us at our nonprofit are proud.
For this article, the author gratefully acknowledges the editing assistance of Mwende Hinojosa and Chris Tittle.