A rising wave of state laws and company policies are allowing a growing share of American parents to take leave following the birth or adoption of a child. As of March 2022, a quarter of US workers have access to some kind of parental leave, up from 19% in 2019, according to the US Department of Labor. While mothers are still most likely to use parental leave policies, the number of fathers who take leave has gone up 183% since 2018. But when employers don’t know what to do with work responsibilities in an employee’s long-term absence, poor planning can breed frustration among the teammates who remain—and create stress for the parents away from the job.
Liz, who asked that we not use her last name, took a 12-week leave from her marketing job when she had her first child in 2020. She was a department of one, and her employer farmed out her job to an agency. But the quality of work just wasn’t up to par: The agency didn’t understand the brand voice, the tone felt off, and the tactics they used didn’t make sense for the business.
The mismanagement became a distraction, says Liz. “I was still doing my 2:00 am scroll during my maternity leave and toeing the line of ‘Do I address this? Do I wait until I get back?’”
In other cases, teams have a hard time absorbing the work. Lacking the time and expertise once shouldered by their colleague, some work is left half-done, or not done at all, by the time they return.
So what’s to be done as parental leave uptake increases? Some are coming up with new programs to solve the problem of backfills.
Expanded leave coverage can come from “maternityships” (and benefit all parents)
As one program, talent marketplace The Mom Project created what they call the “maternityship.” The basics aren’t new: A contractor is hired to cover the parent’s duties while they’re on leave. But this retooled approach encourages careful planning, with the temp arriving a month before the parent goes on leave and remaining a month after their return. And The Mom Project’s program aims to place a specific demographic in these roles—caregivers who want a runway to back into the workforce after a career break.
“This is a great way to brush up on skills that might have languished a bit while they were out, or they might just be feeling a lack of confidence,” says Pam Cohen, the company’s chief data and analytics officer.
E-commerce marketplace Etsy has welcomed maternityship hires. Lauren Draayer entered the company as a temporary hire in 2022, covering for a parent on leave. Not long before taking the maternityship, Draayer had left her full-time job. “I knew as a single mother I would need more flexibility and support to progress my career while prioritizing my children,” she says.
The program didn’t promise a permanent position, but it worked out that way for Draayer, who was hired as a full-time remote employee relations manager in February. She counts her institutional knowledge among the reasons she got the job.
Some companies invite employees to speak up if they want to take on the responsibilities of the mothers or fathers on leave. Ann Roberts, the chief people officer at women’s health app Flo, says it’s an opportunity for career progression. “You can say, ‘We think you have potential, give it a go for twelve months. They prove themselves in a way, and then you can create a trajectory for them.”
The ability to find low-cost learning opportunities comes at a critical time in job market fluctuations, when employees are ready to change jobs if they see a better chance for career development elsewhere. Redistributing tasks among eager employees can be a powerful tool for internal mobility—and retention.
Pay bumps for parental coverage, and other tips from European leave culture
The US is one of only six countries that doesn’t provide a national paid parental leave program. But in European countries where mandated leave has long been a feature of being a working parent—and working with parents—the environment can be different. Roberts, who is based between the UK and Cyprus, says that in her experience, colleagues are willing to pick up duties and do them well. “Even if somebody showed up two months in, the team would be like, ‘What are you doing here? We’ve got you,’” she says.
Employees in Europe are also more likely to receive a “step-up allowance,” or a temporary pay bump proportional to the extra work they’re taking on. This isn’t common in the US yet, but some companies, like Etsy, do have such a policy.
Liz’s coworkers weren’t compensated for their help. “I don’t think it was ever thought that ‘Oh, we need to pay these employees more for taking on someone’s work,” she says, chalking it up to a bootstrap mentality.
For example, in countries like Lithuania and Germany, parental leave can last up to three years, an absence that requires careful planning. “It’s not possible to reassign tasks to the department colleagues,” says Julia Meistrowitz, who works in Germany for specialty chemicals company Evonik. Coverage is often tailored to the job, the team, and the company, she says.
Meistrowitz, who is about to go on parental leave herself, was heavily involved in planning for her time away. When she returns in seven months, she’ll take a promotion and become the company’s head of HR in Germany.
Robert Wagenblast, Evonik’s head of total rewards, says this is just business as usual. “Parental leave and other leaves are relatively customary. Everybody has or has to do it in his or her career,” he says.
Flo’s Roberts describes a similar culture. “Our starting point is an incredibly different cultural expectation, and embracing the gravitas of parenthood and how significant it is in life,” she says. “It’s very much celebrated and planned.”
More parental leave, more coverage
Not all companies are so resourceful. The Mom Project’s Cohen says slipshod planning is still common, and it breeds resentment on teams where work is redistributed at the last minute. “There’s a lot of scrambling,” she says. Ramping up new employees takes time, so many consider it easier to toss responsibilities to coworkers, but this can damage an employer’s chances of retaining the returning parent. If their work hasn’t been done, or if it’s been done badly, that employee may not stick around.
Liz, who has since had a second child, says returning from leave can feel like starting over. She’s learned to give her coworkers, and herself, a lot of grace.