ORANGE CITY, Iowa | Most new parents who work at Northwestern College can now qualify for paid time off to care for their child.

The small private, four-year school recently became one of the first colleges in the tri-state region to offer paid parental leave for both new fathers and mothers.

Full- and three-quarter time employees with at least 12 months of service are eligible for up to six weeks of paid leave after the birth or adoption of a child.

"A few colleges in Iowa offer paid maternal leave, but having a parental leave benefit gives fathers the same opportunity to bond with the child as mothers do,” said Deb Sandbulte, director of human resources for the faith-based school in Orange City. “Offering equal parental leave benefits to dads, to moms who give birth and to parents who adopt sends a clear message that we value all families.”

The United States is the only developed country in the world that does not federally mandate some form of paid time off for new parents. Only 12 percent of American workers are offered paid parental leave.

The federal Family and Medical Leave Act mandates 12 weeks of unpaid maternity leave over a 12 month period, but only to full-time workers at companies with 50 or more employees.

Northwestern's paid parental leave runs concurrently with FMLA guidelines. After exhausting the six weeks of paid leave, new parents can take an additional six weeks of unpaid FMLA leave, Sandbulte said.

The benefit applies to full-time and three-quarter-time employees. Sandbulte said three staff members have already taken advantage of the new paid leave.

College officials had talked about adding the benefit for a number of years. The school conducted extensive research and consulted with other institutions that offer gender-neutral paid parental leave.

“We want to be competitive, but we still had to figure out if we could afford it,” Sandbulte said.

The new policy states the paid leave will not affect any status of seniority or tenure, and an employee on leave will also continue to access other benefits such as health insurance coverage.

“With increasing costs of health coverage and the expenses of having or adopting a child, it’s one more way we as an institution can support those families in a small way,” Sandbulte said.

In order to take advantage of parental leave, Sandbulte said a parent must submit a request form with FMLA request forms and let a supervisor know they intend to take parental leave. Employees are encouraged to use the six weeks at one time.

Bonding and the importance of the early moments of a baby’s life are why the policy was offered to fathers, as well.

She added that this could also give mothers time to recover and allow them to go back to work.

“Statistics show that in almost half of two-parent households in the U.S., both parents work full or part-time and fathers are taking on more child care responsibilities,” she said. “Despite this, the U.S. is the only country among 41 nations that does not mandate any paid leave for new parents.”

Of the state’s public three public institutions, none offer a separate parental leave. The University of Iowa allows birth mothers to have up to six weeks of parental leave used against accrued sick leave. A birth mother’s partner or spouse may use time allotted through FMLA.

Staff members at the University of Northern Iowa are allowed to use sick leave for pregnancy related absences.

Disability or illness caused or contributed to by pregnancy, miscarriage, abortion, childbirth, and recovery for Iowa State University employees are covered under the college’s medically-related disability program.

Briar Cliff University and Morningside College do not offer parental leave outside of the FMLA guidelines. 

Sandbulte said the parental leave plan gives both parents and the college an advantage.

“I believe this sets Northwestern College apart and helps in the recruitment process,” she said, “and is a good fit with our culture and our consistent approach to be a family-friendly workplace.”

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