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In some countries parents know that no matter where they work, or what part of the country they're living in, they're going to have access to a standard length of paid parental leave. In places like Sweden or Canada, this means most babies will be at home with a parent for at least a year.

That's obviously not so in America, where, in the absence of a federal paid leave policy, the state you live in and the organization you work for are major factors in how long you're going to stay home with your baby. Without a standard, it's become important for employers to get serious about extending paid parental leave—it's good for recruitment, retention and PR.

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That's why it's so shocking to hear that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which famously extended its parental leave policy from 16 weeks to 52 weeks back in 2015, is now cutting the length of its paid parental leave by half.

In a LinkedIn post published Friday, Chief Human Resources Officer at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Steven Rice, explains that the new program "will comprise six months of paid leave and, upon a parent's return to work, a $20,000 taxable stipend to help with child care costs and other family needs."

So, it's still pretty great compared to what most Americans have (and basically takes care of the cost of day care) but the new plan is much shorter than the original leave.

According to Rice, the 52 week policy introduced in '15 was intended to help parents thrive personally and professionally, but has had unintended consequences related to backfilling roles and onboarding returning employees.

"On one team, 50% of the staff was either on leave or staffed by those in backfill positions, making the regular work of the foundation far more difficult than expected," Rice writes.

He continues: "Ultimately, we concluded the 52-week leave was hindering the foundation's purpose—to maximize our ability to help people around the world live healthy, productive lives."

Walking the walk

Back in April 2018, before announcing the roll back, Rice told Fast Company that the 52 week policy came about because the foundation "felt it would be disingenuous if we're out talking about creating healthy families as well as having children thrive if our internal people practices didn't align and support that."

Prior to the recent announcement, much of the reporting around the Gates Foundation's parental leave policy has been about how the organization "talks-the-talk and walks-the-walk," as CNBC put it back in September. At that time, foundation co-chair Melinda Gates explained her views on federal paid leave policy in a sit-down interview with the network.

"We need to have a good, paid family medical leave policy," she explained. Her comments in that interview echo those she's made on previous occasions and in her own LinkedIn post addressing the issue.

In February 2018, on the anniversary of the Family and Medical Leave Act (which grants some American workers 12 weeks of unpaid time off for a birth, adoption or illness in the family) Gates wrote a post titled, "25 years later, it's time for paid leave." In it she explained why American families need paid leave, and wrote about how a growing number of businesses are picking up the federal slack on this issue.

"So far, most employers that offer paid leave say the benefits dramatically outweigh the costs. These employers overwhelmingly say the effects are positive or neutral, not only on things like employee morale and turnover, but also on business outcomes like profitability and productivity," Gates wrote.

But within her own organization, paid leave (52 weeks of it, at least) did negatively impact productivity, according to Rice's account. For American parents who are hoping to see their own employers adopt robust paid-leave policies (or those who have accepted a position based upon the existence of one) the Gates Foundations announcement is likely concerning.

If the Gates Foundation can't make it work, who can?

Well, the federal government could try

In most countries, paid parental leave is a federal matter, and it should be. You shouldn't have to work for the Gates Foundation or live in California (if Gavin Newsom's plan works) to get six months off with your baby. That should be standard no matter where you live or work in America.

And perhaps if paid parental leave were standard as per a federal policy, workplaces would have an easier time adapting to them. Maybe, if longer paid leaves were widespread and expected, organizations like the Gates Foundation would find it easier for teams to backfill, flex and thrive while employees are out on maternity leave.

Maybe offering 52 weeks was too ambitious for that particular organization, but Netflix (and, like, every employer in Canada) makes it work, so it's not impossible.

What is impossible is for American families to thrive without paid leave. Gates is right about that.

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