Many big-name employers have grabbed big headlines offering great fertility and family-focused benefits in recent years. This perk could be valuable for women who have waited to have children or hope to delay motherhood to develop their careers.
In one example, Cadence, an electronics design company and winner of the 2020 RESOLVE: The National Infertility Association Access Award, offers fertility benefits such as unlimited IVF, up to $50,000 toward adoption or surrogacy costs, and, like a growing list of tech and finance firms, the preservation and storage of frozen eggs or embryos for the duration of women's employment with the company.
In accepting the award from RESOLVE, Cindy Conway, Cadence's corporate benefits group director, explained that the company's benefits were designed to help women and same-sex couples have more options when it comes to starting a family.
"This is just equality and fairness in making sure all employees have the opportunity to have a family," Conway says. "Strong benefits programs positively impact our business success. Everyone deserves the right of family. Through the years, we've evolved in our recognition of the many paths people take to build their families."
Why family-friendly benefits matter
There are lots of good arguments for expanding family-focused benefits. Employers who offer generous fertility and family benefits in the form of financial resources, time off, and information are apt to see a return on investment in strong employee loyalty, added recruitment incentives, and increased productivity among their workforce.
One in eight adults experiences issues related to infertility. With IVF treatment costing up to $25,000 per cycle and surrogacy costing as high as $135,000, it's easy to calculate that better benefits will mean less financially stressed, and therefore more productive, workers.
Is it a coincidence that large companies are finally investing in fertility and family-focused benefits just as millennial women — the most highly educated demographic the world has ever seen — are squarely in the middle of their childbearing years?
Millennial women are more likely to be part of the workforce than women in any previous generation, and they are more likely to have a college degree than their male peers. Is it any wonder that the sectors competing most fiercely for the highest educated workers — tech and finance — are also the ones offering the most generous fertility-related benefits?
Who gets benefits and who doesn't?
Unfortunately, the feel-good story on family-focused benefits gets less rosy as the focus shifts from the relatively small number of women in tech and finance to the much larger number of women in service industries and retail.
Only 23% of private-sector employers offer IVF benefits. For example, 55% offer an average of nine weeks paid leave for mothers after childbirth. Less than half offer paid family leave to fathers after the birth or adoption of a child. Hourly wage workers and women of color are least likely to have access to paid family leave.
But prominent outliers like Starbucks, Dressbarn and Amazon, which offer the same family benefits to their hourly workers as it does its salaried employees, could be harbingers of a more equitable distribution of benefits.
"We don't have a simple system for parenthood leave in this country," says National Employment Lawyers Association (NELA) member Rebecca Pontikes of Pontikes Law LLC. "Accommodating parenthood in this country is very complicated."
What are you legally entitled to?
The legal guidelines and oversight governing family and fertility benefits are part of a decentralized and often confusing system. Under federal law, employees are entitled to 12 weeks of unpaid family leave if they work for an employer with more than 50 employees, often only after they have worked there for one year. Some states require that smaller companies provide paid or unpaid leave. But as with most benefits in this area, it all depends on the state where you work.
In some cases, because fertility treatments are considered medical conditions, they are covered by FMLA, but only in the sense that workers are entitled to unpaid leave or some medical coverage while they pursue the treatments. This can be complicated because, in some cases, leave taken to pursue infertility treatments counts against your maternity or childbirth leave.
Privacy concerns related to fertility benefits
The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) warns that companies that provide fertility benefits need to train HR and other managers on privacy issues. Employees are under no obligation to explain why they need time off or accommodation for fertility treatments, pregnancy, or breastfeeding.
Just because an employer provides a benefit does not entitle them to know the details of how or why their employees are using it. Under the law, an employer's only option is to oblige the employee. Asking questions about medical conditions of any kind is a violation of employee rights.
If your employer has an employee fitness program or health app you use, be cautious about oversharing. "Your employer should not be privy to your medical decisions," Pontikes says, noting that in most cases, your employer will only know as much detail about your medical conditions as you choose to share. She recommends that employees, especially women, share as little as possible. "By entering data into an app, your employer may be able to figure out you're pregnant before you tell them, and they could do something insidious with that information."
"You do not need to disclose details of medical treatment," she adds, even if you are undergoing medical treatment that requires workplace accommodation. "They need to know what they need to do to accommodate you. They can ask for a note from a doctor, but they do not need to know the details."
If your employer denies leave contingent upon learning the details of your condition — and many employers routinely do — this is a violation of federal law and often state law as well. It may be time to hire a lawyer, Pontikes says.
The motherhood penalty
In addition, NELA's Pontikes warns that just because cutting-edge companies are offering generous benefits to lure top-performing women to their workplace doesn't mean those same women won't be penalized once they decide to use those benefits.
"Women are seen through the lens of motherhood during their entire careers," Pontikes explains.
As entry-level employees, women are seen as potential mothers, she said. Mid-career women are often perceived as likely mothers in job interviews and promotion decisions, even when they have no children.
"At each stage, women are discriminated against in different ways because mommies aren't seen as very good workers," Pontikes says, since the assumption is that any mother will "be more dedicated to her children than to her job."
Pontikes has represented women who have been passed over for promotions, denied promised benefits, and targeted for layoffs at each stage of their work-life due to using or asking for company-provided fertility and family-focused benefits and even legally mandated accommodation. For example, she says, when word gets out that a successful woman is getting fertility treatments, she may see a sudden shift in how her coworkers and her superiors view her.
"Companies retaliate against women for taking leave under FMLA and for seeking accommodation for pregnancy and fertility treatments," she says. "Male caregivers are penalized for using benefits as well."
When men take leave or use family-focused benefits, some employers will target them as well because "suddenly they are breaking the unspoken social contract that says that their primary focus is their work life." In other words, Pontikes says, "they are acting too much like a girl."
Advocacy and resources
Suppose you think you may be facing, or have met, retaliation at work due to fertility treatment, pregnancy, breastfeeding, or caregiver status. In that case, you can file a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
You can also file a formal complaint with your HR department, though Pontikes advises that women seek legal counsel first.
"They're there to do what's best for the company," she says. "You need to be aware that your interests are not always completely aligned with HR."
If you don't think you can afford a lawyer, consider reaching out to advocacy organizations to enquire about pro bono representation. The Center for Worklife Law even maintains a 24-hour Pregnant@Work hotline staffed by attorneys.
Where to turn for help:
- U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission
- National Women's Law Center
- A Better Balance
- National Employment Lawyers Association
- The Center for WorkLife Law
Other companies with generous family-friendly benefits to watch:
- Netflix offers generous fertility benefits, up to $75,000 toward adoption or surrogacy costs, and one year of paid leave after the birth or adoption of a child. However, most employees take only four to eight months.
- Reddit reimburses employees for the cost of breast milk delivery and provides new parents with access to night doulas and lactation consultants. It also happens to boast a rare, nearly 100% return rate for new parents.
- The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Facebook, Bank of America, Chanel, Pinterest and Spotify all offer either unlimited or $100,000 worth of IVF benefits.
- Amazon offers reimbursement for breast milk shipping expenses. It also provides breastfeeding moms access to mothers' rooms with locked doors, refrigerators, and hospital-grade breast pumps. Zillow, Google, Pinterest and Microsoft offer mothers' rooms for lactation as well.
- IBM pays for the cost of breastmilk delivery when mom has to travel for work.
- Nike, Johnson & Johnson, Starbucks, Dressbarn, BP, Goldman Sachs and Salesforce are among the other household names gaining attention for their comparatively generous fertility and family-focused employee benefits.