The average number of weeks employers are giving their workers for parental leave fell slightly over the past decade. (iStockphoto)

Many companies have been noisily publicizing their cushy parental-leave policies in recent years, telling the world they're bestowing workers with an increasingly generous length of time to take off and bond with their newborns. Deloitte now gives new moms and dads 16 weeks of paid leave. Etsy hands out a full six months. Netflix said in 2015 that its workers could take off a child's entire first year.

But while the headlines may be making a splash, the more generous policies aren't making much of a dent in the overall numbers.

The average number of weeks employers are giving workers actually fell slightly over the past decade, even as a greater percentage of companies offered 12 weeks or more in annual leave, according to new data from a nationally representative sample of more than 900 companies.

“Even though those have been the focus of media stories, they don’t show the whole picture,” said Ellen Galinsky, senior research adviser for the Society for Human Resource Management, which publishes the survey.

In 2005, Galinsky said, employers with at least 50 workers allowed an average maximum of 15.2 weeks in maternity leave, compared with 14.5 weeks in 2016. That average is slightly higher than the length of time found in 2014 and 2012 but lower than the one in 2008 and 2005. The data was first reported by Bloomberg News.

The report also shows that more companies are paying women who go on parental leave — 58 percent of companies now offer some pay during leave. The number has been roughly flat since 2012 but is up from 46 percent in 2005. However, the percentage of employers offering workers 100 percent of their regular pay during leave has dropped, according to Galinsky's data, declining from 17 percent in 2005 to just 10 percent last year.

What explains the trend? While it's possible some companies have cut back their benefits over time, Galinsky said that's unlikely, as maternity leave isn't usually the kind of perk companies trim. Some slight changes to survey logistics — in 2016, HR managers could complete the survey online, rather than only by telephone, and were pushed with more follow-up questions — could have had some effect on how companies respond or describe their policies.

But Galinsky and senior researcher James T. Bond noted that the drop in weeks is probably best explained by some differences in the sample. The study is not longitudinal — in other words, the same 900 companies weren't examined over the 11-year period — but is a nationally representative sample of the U.S. economy each year the study is done, weighted by employer size.

A larger percentage of all employers offered new moms 12 weeks off in 2016. But at the high end, surprisingly, the group of companies surveyed in 2005 were even more generous than those surveyed last year. Netflix may have gotten much attention for offering a full year off for new parents, but there were companies in the 2005 survey that offered new mothers at least the same. And among employers that offered the most leave in 2005 — more than three months off — the average number of weeks offered was 28 weeks, much higher than the 21 weeks among that group in 2016.

The shift in employers covering women's entire paycheck while out on leave is probably due to a slight rise in companies that offer short-term disability leave, shifting the mix toward partial pay, Galinsky said.

Still, what is clear to Galinsky is that the ample perks giving companies in certain industries good PR haven't yet translated into better benefits for everyone. It still could, however. “The companies that are one-upping each other by offering more and more wonderful leaves are doing so for the same reason all companies do so — for the retention of their talent,” she said. Now, “if you've got 78 percent of employers saying they're having difficulty attracting the right employees,” she said, that could change. “We just haven't seen it yet.”

Other recent studies have also shown that efforts to increase parental leave — whether via state legislation or individual corporate benefits — have done little to improve how many women actually use the leave they're offered. A recent study by Jay Zagorsky, a research scientist at the Center for Human Resource Research, used census data to find that the number of U.S. women taking maternity leave has been about the same over the past two decades, despite an improving economy and changes to some state laws that now mandate paid leave. (Use of paternity leave, meanwhile, tripled over the same period.)

Zagorsky's data showed that only about 47.5 percent of women were compensated in 2015 for taking maternity leave, a percentage that is increasing, though only by 0.26 percentage points per year. At that rate, it could take another decade before even half of women will get paid time off during maternity leave.

“We are a much richer country since the 1990s,” Zagorsky said in an interview in January. “Looking at the maternity data, it does not suggest that any of the increased wealth has flown toward new working mothers.”

Read also:

Ikea pushes retail into the race to expand paid leave

Why the buffet of employee perks has exploded over the past 20 years

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