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Implementation of Oregon paid family leave to ensure equality critical, research finds

June 03, 2019

Oregon is considering a bill to implement paid family leave, House Bill 2005, following in the footsteps of Washington, which approved a similar policy in 2017.

Oregon Health and Science University-Portland State University School of Public Health researchers concluded that it's not just approving paid family leave that's important for employees -- how that policy is implemented to make it equitable for all employees is just as critical.

OHSU-PSU School of Public Health Assistant Professors Dawn Richardson, Julia Goodman and David Hurtado published "Employee Experiences with a Newly Adopted Paid Parental Leave Policy: Equity Considerations for Policy Implementation" in Health Equity's May edition.

The researchers partnered with Multnomah County to evaluate a new paid leave policy adopted in November of 2015. Their findings offer insight and guidance for organizations implementing or considering implementation of paid family leave as well as steps to ensure equity in employee access to and experience of paid leave.

"If Oregon approves paid family leave, we're hoping our work with Multnomah County can offer support to employers in Oregon to really think about how they carry out the policy," Richardson said. "Assuming it passes, this is a significant shift in employee benefits and there's not a lot of guidance on how to do this, and how to do this well."

The researchers found that the policy was successful in supporting employees in taking paid leave when adding a child to their family through birth, adoption, or fostering. Overwhelmingly, employees were pleased with the benefit and noted how important it was for their families.

But the researchers also found that some employees experienced inequity in the policy's implementation despite it being approved and accessible for all eligible county employees.

One participant, a woman of color, said she saw her experience of inequity replicated despite the new policy.

"Depending on the supervisor, someone gets something very generous and then a person in the next unit over gets not a lot," the participant commented. "This is kind of horrible for all of us to see that, to see this inequity, even though we have these great policies."

Another participant said she had three different supervisors while preparing to take family leave, which led to inequitable decisions.

"I feel like that supervision piece can make it extremely inequitable for people to experience their parental leave," the participant commented. "I had one plan with the first supervisor, which was very understanding, a very generous plan. And then that person left the week I went on leave. And suddenly I had this new person, and they didn't want to honor the plan that I had in place."

The researchers were quick to point out that these experience are not specific to Multnomah County and would very likely be the story in any similar organization. Despite the best intentions of policies like these, an explicit focus on equity is needed.

Richardson and Goodman said supervisory training is one key to achieving workplace equity. Supervisors need to be clear on what the policy entails and how to guide employees navigating paid leave and the blending together of multiple benefits.

"The culture of the workplace matters a lot," Richardson said. "How are families shown they are truly valued?"

Culture and environment influence how employees experience the policy. Factors driving experience include department size and resources, demographic makeup and the supervisor's attitude.

If employees perceive that their use of paid leave is burdensome on the employer, it could have negative implications on the employee's contribution to the workplace.

"The employees who felt most supported also felt passionate about their employer, felt committed, and returned to work in ways that facilitated better productivity," Richardson said.

As Oregon considers approving its own paid family leave policy, she added that much of the negative debate comes down to the burden of cost -- specifically on small businesses.

"The costs are the costs. But who do we as a society believe should pay those costs? And who benefits? Without paid leave, the costs are entirely on the shoulders of workers," she said.

Numerous studies show offering paid family leave benefits both the employee and employer in the long run, but the conversation hasn't transitioned past the upfront cost.

"We need to think about where we want to invest. And part of that investment is not just in adopting the policy, it's in training people," Richardson said. "It's in seeing the policy through."

Employers may struggle with the costs of providing these benefits, she added, but she, Goodman and Hurtado hope work like theirs can show in the long-term the cost is worth it.

Portland State University

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