It’s a generous policy -- even among the benefits-rich world of Netflix’s home in Silicon Valley. But what’s truly groundbreaking is the way Netflix treats maternity leave pay. Unlike most employers, the company won’t use disability insurance to cover childbirth.
“We’ll just keep paying them normally, eliminating the headache of switching to state or disability pay,” Tawni Cranz, Netflix chief talent officer, wrote in the company's announcement.
It’s fairly common for a woman’s maternity leave to be covered by disability insurance. Typically paid for by employers, disability covers some or all of your pay when you’re out sick for a long time. Some states require employers to offer it, and you're not supposed to work at all during the time you're covered. A few more generous employers will start a new mother out on disability and then switch over to covering her salary when the insurance runs out.
The thing is, having a baby isn’t a disability. It’s a pretty natural, mostly wonderful and obviously necessary part of life. Covering maternity leave as a disability might be convenient, but it turns baby-having into some kind of illness. It might hurt like hell to have a baby, but childbirth is not a sickness.
“Separating from disability has great potential,” Ken Matos, senior director of research at the Families and Work Institute, told The Huffington Post. “It removes the pathology of pregnancy. Childbirth is no longer a disease that women get and men don’t, but a family-creating experience. It alters the conversation.”
Not every worker gets pregnant and delivers a baby. Some adopt. Many fathers also want to take leave, as do parents who've worked with a surrogate. Those people don’t have any kind of medical condition (well, maybe they’re all sleep-deprived).
Of course, some mothers have tough deliveries and require medical care -- and they should still receive all the health benefits that pregnancy and delivery requires.
Taking pregnancy out of the disability context, and giving mothers and fathers equal amounts of time off, also evens the playing field between the sexes at work. Making leave gender-neutral -- as Netflix has done -- can lessen the stigma and penalties women face when they take a break from work to care for a new child. If men and women both take a break, then it's harder to discriminate against one gender.
The way Netflix is offering up its leave -- giving workers the chance to go part-time or work a little bit while they're out -- also could help more fathers ease into paternity leave, said Matos. Some men might not want to totally check out of work but still want to be involved at home.
Women might not want to check out totally either -- and decoupling from disability, which requires that employees refrain from working altogether, makes that easier.
When I was pregnant for the first time, I was pretty shocked to learn that my employer didn’t actually offer any paid maternity leave. New mothers had the “option” of taking up to nine months off without pay. Most of us couldn’t afford to take a lot of time off with no pay. But I was given disability pay: six weeks for a vaginal delivery or eight weeks if you had a C-section -- and not all at 100 percent. Cobbling together leave out of that offering was scary, stressful and kind of confusing.
This is obviously better. Still, there are big unanswered questions: Will women still wind up taking more leave than their male counterparts and thus wind up stigmatized/penalized at work? Will workers hesitate to take advantage of all that time? Research has shown that when vacation time is offered on an unlimited basis, employees wind up taking less.
Also, Netflix workers belong to a rarefied group of well-paid white collar workers. We're still waiting on employers of lower-income workers to step to the plate on leave. Or, better yet, the U.S. could pass a law requiring paid leave. We're the only advanced economy that doesn't.