IBM is now giving new moms 20 weeks off (but is still rolling back telecommuting)

Is IBM walking the walk on benefits for working parents?
Is IBM walking the walk on benefits for working parents?
Image: Reuters/Morris Mac Matzen
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IBM today announced an expanded parental-leave policy, increasing paid leave for new mothers from 14 weeks to 20 weeks, and doubling leave for fathers and adoptive parents to 14 weeks.

The computing giant is the latest company to expand benefits for new parents, joining major employers of high-paid office workers like Google and Deloitte in seeing the policies as critical for recruiting and retaining talent. Family leave policies are particularly  important for women when they consider job opportunities. In a survey of US workers by Fractl, 25% of women said they would give leave policies “heavy consideration” when weighing jobs.

IBM is also trumpeting other enhancements for new parents, like paying up to $20,000 of adoption and surrogacy expenses.

The US is alone among industrialized countries in not mandating that employers provide paid leave, so US workers are dependent on the generosity of their workplace. Only 13% of private sector workers are eligible for paid-leave policies, and most of them are in white-collar roles. With very few exceptions, like those who work at IKEA, most low-income workers are out of luck.

Since there’s not much hope of federal action of parental leave—despite campaign promises on both sides during the 2016 US presidential election—there’s a growing movement among activists to apply pressure to employers to provide more generous policies that cover more employees. When big companies like IBM, which has 380,000 employees globally, extend their benefits, it makes it easier for others to follow.

But while IBM giveth to parents, it also taketh away. As it rolls out its expanded leave plans, it’s also reining in remote-work policies which have given potentially thousands of IBM parents the ability to work from home.

As Quartz’s Sarah Kessler reported in March, the company is requiring a portion of its telecommuting employees across the US to show up in person to centralized locations. For some, regularly heading into the office means upending carefully constructed childcare arrangements. For others, it means relocating or quitting. In a blog post, IBM said only 5,000 remote workers have been recalled, but many more people are affected when family members impacted by a major change like this are considered.

IBM deserves praise for its generous parental-leave plan. Ultimately, though, being family friendly means understanding parents have children for more than a year, and building policies that support workers with children after the paid leave has expired.