Marion Johnson, Think NC First Policy Analyst
Netflix announced this week that it would begin offering unlimited parental leave to its employees – well, some of its employees. Netflix’s salaried workers can now take as much leave as they need in the first year after the birth or adoption of a child. Combined with their unlimited vacation policy, this move represents a huge step for work-family balance in corporate America, and Netflix has rightfully received a lot of attention for it.
The tech industry appears to be at the forefront of the paid parental leave charge. Google, Twitter, Facebook, and Microsoft all offer extensive paid parental leave packages, ranging from 12 to 20 weeks, with birth mothers usually getting additional time. Netflix Chief Talent Officer Tawni Cranz voiced the common argument for these strong policies: “[Our] continued success hinges on us competing for and keeping the most talented individuals in their field. Experience shows people perform better at work when they’re not worrying about home.” And there is a wealth of evidence to back this argument up.
But generally, employers are only using that argument for their well-paid white-collar employees, and Netflix’s leave policy follows an unfortunate trend in the American workforce. While only 13 percent of U.S. workers have access to paid parental leave, that share falls to 4 percent at the bottom of the income ladder. The working class gets almost completely left out of the work-life balance conversation. According to Planet Money, Netflix’s leave policy won’t cover the non-salaried workers in its DVD distribution centers. Instead, it will continue to privilege the upper class (with a median base salary of $180,000, Netflix is one of the highest-paying companies in the country). This discrimination really hurts low-income families who can’t afford to miss paychecks in order to bond with and care for a new child. The families who need the most help balancing work and family responsibilities continue to get no help at all.
There is also the pressure that taking maternity leave puts on female employees. If the office culture unofficially frowns on taking a long leave, even if it is officially offered, a new mother may feel pressured to chose between bonding with her child and appearing committed to her work. Establishing a truly supportive work environment would benefit working parents more than a flashy but relatively empty gesture.
The United States is still one of only a handful of countries that don’t mandate paid parental or family leave, so any employer’s efforts to provide a better working environment should be commended. But we can’t keep depending on rich corporations to create standalone policies that don’t apply to all workers. The government can’t impact office culture overnight, but it can take the lead and make sure to support the working families who need it the most.
 Cranz, Tawni. (August 4 2015). “Starting Now at Netflix: Unlimited Maternity and Paternity Leave.” Netflix US & Canada Blog. Available at http://blog.netflix.com/2015/08/starting-now-at-netflix-unlimited.html
 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (March 2014). National Compensation Survey, Employee Benefits Survey. Table 32. Leave benefits: Access, civilian workers. Available at http://www.bls.gov/ncs/ebs/benefits/2014/ownership/civilian/table32a.htm
 Henn, Steven. (August 6 2015). “Netflix’s parental leave plan is groundbreaking – and unlikely to spread.” National Public Radio. Available at http://www.npr.org/2015/08/06/429911928/netflixs-parental-leave-plan-is-groundbreaking-and-unlikely-to-spread
McGregor, Jena. (November 6 2014). “When ‘good’ maternity leave programs can actually hurt women.” Washington Post. Available at http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/on-leadership/wp/2014/11/06/when-good-maternity-leave-programs-can-actually-hurt-women/