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‘Should I have pushed for more?’ Idaho parents adjust and adapt to varying parental leave policies, challenges

‘Lauren’ gave birth in the fall of 2018 while working full-time as a marketing director. Over the course of a year, to prepare to take time off to care for her baby, Lauren saved about 14 days’ worth of paid time off. 

Lauren’s company offered 12 weeks’ unpaid leave through the Family and Medical Leave Act or FMLA. With just 14 days of PTO and no paid leave through her work, the remaining ten weeks of her leave were not compensated. 

“I was verbally told it wasn’t something the company had to honor because, technically, the company didn’t have the number of employees within the 75-mile radius (to qualify for FMLA) because the company has several contractors that were associated with the company. So they’re like, ‘well, technically, we don’t have to give it to you, but we are.”

To ensure that sources could speak candidly about their employers, BoiseDev agreed not to use their names or where they worked and used stand-in names, as is the case with Lauren.

12 weeks not common in Idaho

Lauren still said that she “felt really lucky.” She was able to return to her job after 12 weeks, and she was able to save up paid time off; something many expecting parents do not get to do. 

“I felt really lucky to be someone that had PTO, and I was able to family plan and save a little bit of money,” she said. 

FMLA was established in 1993 and applies to businesses with 50 or more employees within a 75-mile radius of a single location. FMLA grants eligible employees unpaid leave that protects their position at the company while maintaining their group health benefits for “specified” family and medical reasons, like the birth of a child. The FMLA standard for the birth of a new child or adoption or foster care placement of a child is 12 weeks of unpaid protected leave. 

Though according to the National Partnership for Women and Families, just 28.6 percent of working adults in Idaho are estimated to be eligible for and can afford to take without pay.

Factors like income and schedules can dictate how much work a parent with a new child can or wants to take off – one thing the parents we spoke to agreed on is there should be some changes made on a national level with guaranteed parental leave. 

The United States is the only industrialized country that does not guarantee parental leave on a national level. The United Kingdom gives 39 weeks of maternity leave, Canada gives 16 weeks, and Mexico offers 12 weeks of maternity leave. 

Parents adjust… and adapt

Jane Gordon is an attorney at a law firm in Boise. (Gordon agreed to let us use her name.) She has had two children and has taken leave with the company twice. Gordon was one of the first people at her firm to have a baby, so she said she could talk with colleagues and help establish what she wanted her time off to look like. 

Gordon took seven weeks off with her first baby, and while she waited for a daycare space to open, her work allowed her to take her child into the office. 

“That was a really slow (reentry to work),” Gordon said. “I was starting to feel antsy… it would be kind of nice to get back to it. But then also, I didn’t want to leave my kid. It was just nice; he’d hang out here. I would take him to board meetings with me and take him to events with me. It was great. I loved it; it was super fun. So he went pretty much everywhere with me for like his first four months.”

Gordon had her second baby in May 2020. With this baby, she did eight weeks of leave in order to wait until her baby’s immune system was more robust with the COVID-19 pandemic in full effect. 

With smaller companies that do not have many people to fill in when an employee is on leave, some parents spoke about the “pressure” they feel to come back early.

“There’s not enough redundancy in positions to actually feel confident and feel relaxed, taking time off,” ‘Nicole,’ a person who agreed to speak anonymously, said. “So when I went on maternity leave, I never had a problem like telling my employer, ‘hey, this is the amount of time I’m going to take off.'”

But Nicole said she felt some guilt for the work left behind.

“That doesn’t feel good to not have that redundancy,” she said. “It doesn’t provide any peace of mind to the actual employee who has to take time off, and then it also creates a burden for the rest of the workforce.” 

‘Mike,’ another person who chose to remain anonymous, spoke about how he has watched some colleagues negatively react to parents taking his employer’s six-week parental leave policy. 

“There seems to be a bit of resentment,” he said. “At least I’ve observed it in my office where taking parental leave is seen as an unfair advantage.”

‘Emotional and difficult’

‘Jaime,’ Another parent BoiseDev interviewed, has had two children at two different companies – both in Idaho. In 2013, she had her daughter while she worked at a small lighting company. This employer told her the maximum leave she could take was six weeks unpaid. 

“Looking back, I wonder if I should have pushed for more. But it was my first kid. I was so grateful and felt so lucky at the time to even have a job that I didn’t question it,” Jaime said. “And it was definitely very emotional and difficult to put your six-week-old baby in daycare and drop them off with people you don’t know. That’s a tiny, tiny baby.”

Jaime said paying for daycare was difficult.

“We were so lucky to find the couple that we did who had a small in-home daycare. But my mom lived in Emmett, where I grew up, so she drove over 45 minutes twice a week and watched my daughter. For, I think, the first year of her life, twice a week just so that we could afford the three days a week that we were paying for daycare.”

She works in design now and has been at the job where she had her second child for over nine years. When she was preparing for her second child, there was not a formal parental leave policy at her workplace, so she could say she was taking 12 weeks – however, those were not paid.

Like many other parents, Jaime relied on collecting what paid time off she had available. Those 12 weeks were not under FMLA, she requested the 12 weeks, and previously the company’s standards were six weeks of leave.

“I think a huge problem that the parents face is daycare is so expensive that not getting paid while you’re off is also really hard,” Jaime said. “And so my husband and I, even though we made so little, especially in 2013, I think we have a much stronger support system with both our parents in town and our siblings.”

She said the choice between taking time to bond with a child and heal from giving birth – and getting paid to work – isn’t an easy one.

“For a lot of people, they are living paycheck to paycheck,” she said. “And they can’t afford to even take the full-time off that they might be allowed to take if it’s unpaid. And so a lot of people choose to go back to work earlier because they simply have to make ends meet.”

She said she believes six months should be the “absolute minimum” for recovery and to bond with the baby in its early stages of development. 

Governments starting to shift

Idaho Public Policy Survey statehouse
The Idaho Statehouse. Photo: Sean Pavone/Shutterstock

Eleven states offer fully paid family and medical leave: California, Connecticut, Colorado, Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Washingtonand the District of Columbia. 

In January 2020, Idaho Governor Brad Little issued an executive order that established eight weeks of guaranteed paid leave for eligible employees of the state’s executive branch agencies after the birth or adoption of a child. 

State employees were already given up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave through FMLA. The state-level Families First Act helps parents take eight weeks off without having to tap into accrued sick or vacation time. 

“Idaho is a state that encourages strong families as the bedrock of our society,” Governor Little said in the news release. “Parents and children need to be together as much as possible in the weeks following a birth or adoption. Children benefit, parents benefit, and the state benefits when we support a culture that balances the demands of work with the demands of family.”

The state’s policy is more extensive than the policy for the City of Boise, which offers six weeks. The City of Meridian offers two weeks.

Chobani, Micron, Idaho Power up leave

The Idaho Power employee parking lot in Downtown Boise. Photo: Don Day/BoiseDev file

Chobani is a food company that operates a one-million-square-foot factory in Twin Falls. In 2017, Chobani started offering all of its employees six weeks of fully paid parental leave. This includes parents who gave birth, adopted, or fostered a child.

“We feel strongly that employees deserve this chance to be off, to not have financial ramifications. But to be able to take the time off to bond with the child and not just the mother but the father as well,” Brandon Dansie, a spokesperson for Chobani, said. “And we’ve even had this extend to adoption and placement of foster care. We’ve had some employees that have taken that as well, which can also come with many challenges, and when we can be able to say to them, ‘hey, you don’t need to worry about your job; you don’t need to worry about pay, go take care of the child, bond with the child.’ It’s putting our money; it’s putting our policies where our beliefs our as far as the importance of family life for our employees.”

Another major Idaho employer, Micron, chooses to mirror FMLA but with full pay.

The leave gives parents who have given birth or adopted a child, or employees who need to care for a spouse, children (not newborns), or parent, twelve weeks fully paid. Micron moved to include spouse, child, or parent care in April 2022.

“With the median age of employees in the mid-40s, Micron understands more employees need to care for their parents and spouses and require broader support for child care,” a Micron spokesperson wrote in an email. “This update ensures all Micron employees are eligible for this benefit.”

At Idaho Power, mothers and fathers are offered two weeks of 100% paid leave. Then through the company’s short-term disability policy, mothers can take at least six weeks off with 75% of their pay. 

“It seems like more and more employers are offering more parental leave for both father and mother. And so we’re trying to keep in line and make sure that we’re not falling behind,” Chase Ropelato of Idaho Power said. “…We were hearing from our employees that it would be nice to have to leave as well for the dad. And so we implemented that.”

Ropelato said the company does an annual benchmark process.

“What are our peers doing? Specifically in the energy industry. And then, what’s going on just in the market in general? So it’s definitely on our radar.”

Blue Cross of Idaho recently upgraded its parental leave policy, which went into effect on January 1, 2023. 

The health insurance company offers FMLA leave and a short-term disability policy that is free to employees and covers 70% of their salary. New this year is paid family leave that is four weeks at 100% of the employee’s salary. Before January, parents were offered four weeks at 50% of their salary. 

“Just the doubling is kind of exciting for us to be doing, and then we also have an adoption benefit,” Stacey Gehlken, a Blue Cross spokesperson. “That lets people who are adopting get reimbursed for qualified expenses when they complete the adoptions… we put in 2020, and people will really appreciate it.”

Smith + Malek is a law firm with a location in Downtown Boise. The company also has offices in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, and Spokane, Washington. 

The firm gives 16 weeks of paid leave to people that carry children and then 12 weeks for everyone else who brings a child into their family, such as fostering or adoption.

“It really goes back to our philosophy at the firm, which is the need to take care of our people… Our mission is to change the world for the better, and we want to be a force of justice for the world, and if we’re to be a force of justice that we have to have a force which includes the people that make it up,” Luke Malek the co-owner of Smith + Malek said. “And investing in those people is a critical part of who we are. It’s never going to be easy to be a working parent, but there are certain things that we can do as a business to help them adjust.”

Opportunity?

For Lauren she thinks broad changes could help parents of all situations.

“I think that there’s opportunity to modify (FMLA) so that families can really take advantage of it.  Whatever your family dynamic looks like,” she said. “It’s just as important for the parents to learn how to care for the baby and take that time. But also raise the child and care for the child. It is as much for the child is for the parents.”

More to read

Autum Robertson - BoiseDev Reporter
Autum Robertson - BoiseDev Reporter
Autum Robertson is a BoiseDev reporter focused on Meridian and McCall. Contact her at [email protected].

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