Lockton Companies executive vice president Mark Henderson has a long-standing habit of going to lunch each week with two randomly selected employees to talk about anything they want.
As the insurance company's workforce has trended younger, Henderson has heard more from new parents, people about to become parents, and people thinking about becoming parents. The common refrain: "They pointed out our current employee benefits program was challenging."
The Kansas City, Mo.-based company has had a typical employee benefits plan. If Lockton employees had banked unused sick days and not taken their vacation days, Henderson said, they could amass eight or 10 weeks of maternity leave with no income loss.
That tended to work out OK for first-time parents, but for second babies, there usually wasn't time or ability to build up sick or vacation days. So, starting Jan. 1, Lockton will offer 12 weeks of paid maternity leave for birth or adoption and four weeks of paid paternity leave.
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The U.S. average leave time among companies offering paid maternity leave is six weeks. But many workers have no paid benefit at all. Henderson said he concluded that "we weren't anywhere near the best in class, but we wanted to be."
Best-in-class employers, he said, focus on three things -- "clients, our associates and our communities from which we derive economic benefit. We felt we were failing one of those."
Lockton figures it will lose about a quarter of a year's productivity from each worker who takes the full maternity leave. It expects about 50 to 60 births a year among its 3,700-strong U.S. workforce. So the cost isn't taken lightly. But Henderson said the cost-benefit analysis came down on the side of protecting associates from coming back to work too soon.
Longer maternity leaves, he said, help protect against some unplanned sick days. They cut down on people who quit or who bargain for part-time work. And they help reduce work/life stress.
Plus, "this is another great recruiting and retention tool," said Lockton human resource leader Ed Schloesslin.
According to the Society for Human Resource Management, 21 percent of U.S. companies offer paid maternity leave, and 17 percent offer paid paternity leave.
Asked about the new Lockton program, Molly Berndt, who is expecting a second child in March, said: "It takes a lot of stress off our family to know that I can be home with our newborn and not worry about my income and sick time and vacation days."
Andy DiOrio, about to become a second-time father, said the paid paternity leave will be priceless. Comments like that explain why Lockton accepted the price of the expanded benefits program.
Diane Stafford, Kansas City Star workplace reporter, can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter@kcstarstafford.