It’s true that employers have been rethinking leave policies for quite some time now. Paid parental leave has been a hot topic for years, with many advocating for a federal law requiring it. Just last year, new legislation granted 12 weeks of paid leave to federal workers with the birth or adoption of a child. Maine has also enacted required paid leave for any purpose, effective beginning in 2021. Tech giants have also popularized unlimited or generous paid time off (PTO) plans in recent years, and younger employees place more emphasis on flexible leave benefits, adding pressure to employers looking to attract top talent. In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, more changes may be coming to the way employers handle paid leave.

A survey of 457 US employers conducted in June 2020 by XpertHR finds that companies are split nearly half-and-half between offering traditional paid leave, which utilizes categories such as designated sick days and vacation time, and a single PTO bank that includes all or most leave categories. Only a very small number (2%) of employers reported a different type of paid leave plan, such as unlimited PTO or sick leave only.

Companies with some union-represented employees were much more likely to have a traditional plan—77%, compared with only 44% of non-union employers offering a traditional plan. The vast majority of these employers offering traditional paid leave offered vacation time and sick leave. However, some offered paid time off for bereavement (82%), jury duty (76%), personal days or floating holidays (72%), parental leave (41%), voting (37%), and public health emergencies, such as quarantine leave (36%).

Survey responses were taken during March and April, when COVID-19 began to inflict changes on business operations and leave policies in particular. During this time, new legislation on leave has been proposed and large companies have modified their paid leave policies to accommodate workers’ growing family- and health-related responsibilities. The recent Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA), enacted in March, generally requires companies with fewer than 500 employees provide required sick leave for employees experiencing COVID-19 symptoms, being under quarantine, or caring for an individual under quarantine. It also expanded family or medical leave to care for a child if their school or daycare is closed or unavailable for reasons related to COVID-19. Additionally, a second bill that has only, so far, passed in the House of Representatives looks to expand on the FFCRA legislation.

COVID-19 Concerns Are Accelerating Benefits Changes

COVID-19 has forced many businesses to think beyond basic or traditional offerings—many of which did not support (or are still not supporting) workers during this time. A growing number of working mothers, two-income households, and employee-caregivers were already leading some companies to expand leave policies for new parents and caretaking responsibilities. Now that caregiving needs have increased due to the pandemic, more businesses are having to consider how expanding leave can support employees’ well-being and work-life balance as well as retain talent and improved focus and productivity while they’re on the job.

The pandemic has also made employee health more than just an employment perk or investment into better productivity. People are now more thoughtful about the legal, ethical, and public health-related concerns surrounding sick workers. If a company’s policy doesn’t allow for employees to sufficiently take care of themselves and stay home when sick, what is the risk factor for the company and community at large? Would all operations be shut down for one employee who failed to quarantine, or rest and keep themselves in good health? A few months ago, generous and flexible sick leave may not have been considered so impactful. Now, a greater value is placed on keeping employees well and safe.

Using Creative PTO to Attract Talent

For lots of employees, their benefits have changed due to remote work and modified workplaces and operations. Offerings like remote work are becoming universal, and many in-office perks have disappeared. These perks, previously, may have helped a company stand out to potential talent because they went beyond the typical traditional benefits packages of insurance and retirement options. To differentiate themselves from competitors, employers may want to turn to creative and generous PTO benefits. Having a variety of leave options in place for different scenarios, as well as truly sufficient time off for dealing with sickness or personal emergencies, can put employees at ease and be extremely attractive now that these issues have become more relevant.

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