Thirty-year-old Sarah Estrada timed her pregnancy well. As a music teacher in the Northside Independent School District, Estrada and her husband Andrew are expecting their first child in July, which will give her just over five weeks off with her baby boy before the school year starts and she goes back to work.

Like most employees in Texas, where the federal Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) allows eligible employees to take unpaid leave for certain reasons with the right to reinstatement, Estrada would be eligible for more time off, but not with pay.

“Most teachers either save up their annual leave, or get disability insurance, which is what I did,” Estrada said. “Obviously, I don’t like the current maternity leave policies. I’m here trying to move heaven and earth to get appropriate time at home with my baby and for my body to recover without spending the rest of the year stressing over my docked pay and barely making ends meet.”

She’s not alone. Despite the passage of FMLA 24 years ago, the United States is the only country among 41 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and European Union member nations that does not mandate paid leave for new parents, according to data compiled by OECD and reported by Pew Research.

In other research examining 185 countries worldwide, the International Labor Organization found that the U.S. and Papua New Guinea were the only two nations that lacked any paid parental leave.

A Better Balance, a group of attorneys who work on women’s rights, reported that 25% of mothers in the U.S. return to work within less than two weeks of giving birth.

California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island all have state-mandated paid leave plans in place. New York will join them in 2018, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. In Texas, however, employees have only the rights guaranteed by FMLA. And that law doesn’t apply to companies with fewer than 50 workers.

Thus, 40% of working people are not eligible for FMLA, according to the American Federation of Labor & Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), which petitions for paid family leave on its website: “Parents should be able to spend time bonding with their child before returning to work and still afford to pay the bills and have job security. Unfortunately, big business interest and corporate lobbyists have halted making paid leave a reality.”

Perhaps big business is beginning to see the light. Earlier this year, financial services firm USAA announced it would begin offering a new parental benefit to provide all eligible new parents with up to 12 weeks of full pay when a child joins the family either by birth or adoption starting this July.

Currently, mothers get six to eight weeks of short-term disability – as is the case with many employers. According to spokesperson Matt Hartwig, employees can also take four weeks of unpaid leave to bond with their child.

The USAA downtown offices at One Riverwalk Place. Photo by Scott Ball.
The USAA downtown offices at One Riverwalk Place. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

“These expanded benefits are about creating conditions for our entire team’s success,” stated the company’s Executive Vice President for Human Resources Mark Reid. “This helps USAA bring in and keep a talented and diverse group of people who feel their best while they fulfill a noble mission – serving our members and each other.”

Paid family leave is a rare benefit in the U.S. According to the Department of Labor, only 12% of private sector workers have access to paid family leave.

And yet, according to former University of Texas Professor of Sociology David Pedulla, who is now at Stanford, and UC Santa Barbara Assistant Professor of Sociology, Sarah Thebaud, it’s a benefit that more CEOs should take seriously.

“The findings from our research underscore the point that achieving gender diversity in a work organization is contingent on managers’ willingness to prioritize policies such as paid family leave and flexible scheduling,” the two sociologists stated in a 2014 UT News article.

“Given the well-established link between diversity and the productivity and success of companies, business leaders and policymakers have a vested interest in implementing these types of policies. Work-family policies such as paid family leave also affect more than a company’s bottom line.

“They impact the way that men and women decide to organize their work and family lives, thereby increasing workers’ happiness and satisfaction at work and at home.”

In addition to USAA, some of San Antonio’s other major employers are taking note.

At NuStar Energy, an energy firm that employs 500 in San Antonio, company policy allows for coverage through short-term disability plans. Eligible employees receive six weeks of full pay after the birth or adoption of a child. NuStar also reimburses employees up to $5,000 for expenses related to an adoption.

Managed-cloud provider Rackspace employs about 3,000 here, despite layoffs earlier this year. “This is something we’re passionate about,” spokesperson Monica Jacob said of Rackspace family leave benefits. “Internally, we live by the philosophy that, in order for Rackers to effectively deliver ‘fanatical support’ to customers, the company needs to deliver ‘fanatical support’ to them.”

She pointed to maternity and fertility benefits as an example. Rackspace offers up to 12 weeks of continuous paid maternity leave and four weeks of continuous paid paternity leave. It also offers up to six weeks of paid continuous adoption leave and includes fertility benefits in its health plans. “All of these benefits are available on Day One of employment,” Jacob added.

The City of San Antonio introduced two new family-friendly leave types for employees last year: Paid parental leave and paid wellness/education leave. Parental leave allows employees to take six weeks of paid leave after the birth, adoption or fostering of a child. Wellness/education leave awards employees 24 hours of paid leave for school-related functions for dependents, physical and financial wellness-related appointments and registration or administrative needs related to continuing education.

UT Health San Antonio, which has 5,400 on the payroll, provides no paid family medical leave for the birth or adoption of a child. As a state institution, UT Health’s policy is set by The University of Texas System, under state guidance, for its 14 academic and health institutions.

Both Frost Bank and H-E-B, which recently announced the hiring of the grocery chain’s 100,000th employee statewide, declined to discuss their policies for this story.

Sarah Estrada doesn’t plan to wait around for more generous family leave policies before growing her family.

“We were lucky enough this time for the timing to work out,” she said. “If we can have a summer baby again, or even a May baby, I could win the ‘maternity leave’ jackpot and have almost three months before going back to work!”

Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger is the development beat reporter for the San Antonio Report.