How One Company Designed a Family Leave Policy That Works for Every Employee
by Laura Kiesel
Bora Architects crunched the numbers to create a family leave benefit that provides much-needed time off with pay for employees while making business sense for the firm.
When Lauren Smith found out she was pregnant last year, she had been working happily for over five years as an office manager at Bora Architects in Portland, Oregon. The more she researched daycare options, the more worried she became. She was especially concerned when she discovered that most daycare facilities require that infants be at least six weeks old to enroll. However, that also seemed too early for Smith. “I didn’t feel like I would be able to hand my new little one off that soon,” says Smith.
It wasn’t just the thought of being separated from her child so soon after birth that gave her pause. She also did not know if she could even afford to take that amount of time off. “The thought of going without pay for a month and a half was just about as terrifying as it gets,” says 33-year-old Smith.
She planned on trying to save up her paid time off (PTO), but it still didn’t look like that would give her the cushion she felt she needed to fully recuperate from childbirth and bond with her baby. She also considered quitting her position. Though she hated the idea of leaving her beloved workplace, she says she was feeling desperate. As Smith was deliberating her choices, one of her close friends and co-workers decided to inquire to management about donating her paid time off to Smith and allowing other employees to do so as well.
This was when a principal of the firm, Amy Donohue, teamed up with Bora’s Business Manager and CFO, Dawn Ridenour, to further research the viability of implementing a comprehensive paid family leave policy at the firm. Donohue researched family leave models across the nation, paying special attention to states like California and Rhode Island that have passed progressive mandates for such policies. Meanwhile, Ridenour crunched the numbers for Bora, looking into recruitment and retention rates and trends for departure or leaves of absence from the company. She focused on any occurrences among employees that would have triggered the need to take time off or leave under the Oregon Family Leave Act (OFLA) — namely, births or deaths in the family, and illness–over the previous five years. Donohue and Ridenour also researched data provided by Family Forward, an Oregon-based nonprofit that advocates for universal family and medical leave and affordable childcare in the state.
Ultimately, they both found that it actually made much more financial sense to implement a family leave policy. “It became clear if you don’t support people in their personal lives, they make choices to leave and go somewhere else,” says Donohue. “And it’s much more expensive to replace people and the knowledge they take with them.”
Armed with this information, Bora’s management committee was able to quickly devise and implement a family leave policy accessible to employees needing time off from work due to either having or adopting a child, coming down with an illness (either their own or that of a close family member), providing elder care or because they suffered a loss (bereavement leave). Once the figures were presented to the remaining five principals of the firm, they all unanimously voted to adopt family leave. Specifically, the program offers paid leave at 20 percent of one’s salary up to the first year of employment, 40 percent for those employed between one and two years and 60 percent for those employed for more than two years at Bora.
The turnaround of the process was quick. They first started discussing the possibility of a family leave policy at Bora in April 2015, and the plan was put in place by July — just in the nick of time for Smith’s delivery of a baby boy, whom she named Cohen.
As Smith is a longtime employee with the firm, she was able to take a full six weeks of family leave while receiving 60 percent of her salary. Bora also agreed to let Smith use up her non-family leave PTO for the year, as well as work from home an average of 10 hours per week during both her maternity leave period and for an additional eight weeks. This level of income, combined with the salary she had received during her formal maternity leave, kept her afloat while she was away from the Bora office. Overall, Smith was able to be with her baby for a full 14 weeks before returning to the office to resume working full-time, which was also the soonest she could get him into the local daycare.
Since Smith took her leave last year, about six other employees have taken advantage of the program, or approximately 10 percent of the firm’s staff. Ridenour also discovered that offering the family leave program at Bora basically offset the firm’s need for a disability insurance program that it had previously offered its shareholders. Without the need for the insurance program, its allocated costs could be applied to the budget for the firm’s family leave instead. “We essentially became self-insured,” says Donohue. “We almost can’t afford not to have [paid family leave].”
In the future, Bora would like to see more firms follow suit. For now, they plan on supporting any statewide policies that can help expand and improve on the state’s Family Medical Leave Act. But in the meantime, Donohue and Ridenour take pride in how Bora has helped set a standard for smaller scale businesses in Oregon to take initiative on offering family leave to their workers. “We were amazed at how achievable this was and are doing our best to let others know,” says Donohue. “It’s not just the Googles and Microsofts that can afford this. It is achievable at the small business scale.”
As for Smith, she couldn’t have been more pleased with the outcome. Not only was she able to spend ample quality time tending to her newborn son without incurring the level of financial strain, but she was able to return to her favorite workplace with her former position waiting for her. “Bora has always felt like a family unit … it’s why I’ve stayed here longer than any other job,” says Smith. “Instituting the family leave policy wasn’t a big show to win clients or gain attention, it was quickly and quietly hammered out in a time of need, when Bora leadership felt it was right to step up and take care of their own.”