This Company Allows Workers to Take a 6-Month Leave of Absence and Retain 20% Pay—Here's Why

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The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the U.S. child-care crisis and has already left a mark on workforce participation rates — particularly for women around the country.

Already, 2.2 million women left the labor force between February and November, according to an analysis from the National Women's Law Center. A September report from Lean In and McKinsey & Company found that 1 in 4 women were considering downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce, in large part due to increased household and child-care responsibilities during the pandemic.

Kim Jones, people experience leader at the professional services network PwC, quickly saw these responsibilities take a toll on the company's 55,000 U.S. employees. These concerns hit close to home for Jones, who says she raised her only daughter, who is now 20 years old, as a single parent.

By the summer, as parents grew concerned with how they would weather distance learning and prolonged child-care shortages through the fall, leaders at PwC announced several new benefits intended to support families.

Workplace benefits consider child-care access, costs

One addition was a new leave of absence pay, which allows workers to take a leave of absence for up to six months and continue to receive 20% of their pay during that time. "Not everyone can do this given their economic uncertainty," Jones tells CNBC Make It, but adds that the program aims to help workers who can get by on less income while they regain control of their home lives as the pandemic continues.

The benefit took effect in August and has been extended to cover approved leaves that start on or before March 31, 2021 (this would cover 20% pay for a leave of absence through September 30, 2021). The leave can also be taken more than once.

A leave of absence benefit could also help parents stay in the workforce instead of being forced to sever ties with their employer. Jones gave the example of one employee who took a 3-month leave to better manage daily life for herself and three small kids at home when school resumed in the fall. She has since returned to working from home.

"She said it was one of the best things she took part of here," Jones says, adding "she was promoted mid-year off-cycle, which doesn't happen all that often at PwC."

The benefit is "just one tangible example of how we can help people with these different options for working parents," Jones adds.

PwC also increased their usual $1,000 emergency child-care stipend to $2,000 during the pandemic, effective through June 30, 2021. The stipend can be used to cover child, spouse or eldercare costs when their usual care provider is not available.

Where national and company policies stand

Fewer than 1 in 5 employers offered child-care help in 2019, according to survey data from the Society of Human Resource Management. Many organizations have added new benefits intended to help working parents during the pandemic, such as increased paid time off or flexible work hours; however, workers concerned about their job security may worry that using these programs could impact their employment.

Nearly all companies in a September survey of over 500 employers by Willis Towers Watson say they're offering working parents the ability to work flexible hours; 76% are allowing reduced schedules and about 10% are maintaining pay and benefits. 

Meanwhile, at the national level, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act enacted in April provides eligible workers with up to 12 weeks of partially paid leave to provide child care. Critics have argued that the policy is too limited in scope, as it applies only to workers at private companies with fewer than 500 employees, and certain public sector employers. This is only about 27% of the U.S. workforce, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics

Paid family leave under FFCRA expires at the end of December 2020, as do a number of financial lifelines provided in the CARES Act. Months of Congressional negotiations between the House and Senate have not resulted in any kind of deal for a new round of pandemic stimulus. This week, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin unveiled a $916 billion White House relief proposal; critics have noted the package does not include an extension of coronavirus-related paid family and medical leave.

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