When Having a Baby and Losing Your Job Collide

Alex Gable spent recent weeks in the bleary-eyed haze of new parenthood. His son was born in November and Mr. Gable powered down his laptop, deleted Slack from his phone and focused on caring for his wife while making the most of the four precious hours a day that their baby was awake — there was tummy time and time spent ogling little drawings of snowflakes.

Then on Jan. 18, Mr. Gable got an early morning notification for an all-hands meeting at Coda, the software company where he worked as a data scientist. Four hours later Mr. Gable, 30, found himself having to deliver the news to his wife: He had been laid off while on paternity leave — months after choosing the company for its generous paternity leave policy and openness toward work-life balance.

“It’s like an earthquake,” he said. “It’s the weight of ‘What am I going to bring him up with? How is his first year going to go? How are you going to make ends meet?”

Workers across the tech and media industries are experiencing a period of immense whiplash. After lavishing their employees with perks, in a tight labor market and a war for talent, companies have turned to mass job cuts, including Alphabet, which laid off 6 percent of its workers last month, and Microsoft, which cut nearly 5 percent.

These are the same companies that spent recent years expanding benefits in one area in particular: paid parental leave and caregiver benefits, which fill in the gaps for white-collar workers in a country where the federal government does not require employers to offer paid parental leave. Which means that working parents have felt the turbulence of mass layoffs in an especially visceral way.

Now some are spending their early weeks of parenthood adjusting to life without a job. LinkedIn and Twitter have been filled with accounts of workers being laid off while on parental leave or even, in at least two instances, while delivering a baby. That comes with a mental health toll — as so many laid-off workers across different backgrounds have experienced, including those who are immigrants with visas tied to employment.

Employees across tech have felt that their companies engaged in a bait and switch, after selling not just a job but a lifestyle, with child care, mental health support and plentiful paid time off. For new parents, generous leave was part of the draw. Many had assumed that their parental leave came with some legal protection, and were distraught to learn they were caught up in mass job cuts. Being on parental leave does not protect someone from mass layoffs unrelated to their leave.

America has no federal paid-family-leave policy. About 23 percent of private employees have paid maternity leave, according to September 2022 data from the career site Zippia. More than 90 percent of women take the full amount of leave offered, compared with about two-thirds of men, according to a survey by the Boston College Center for Work and Family.

But in the last five years, companies scaled up family-friendly benefits for some workers in what human resources experts called the “golden age” of corporate benefits. A study from Mercer found that 54 percent of large companies covered in vitro fertilization in 2022, compared with 36 percent in 2015, and 19 percent covered egg freezing compared with 6 percent in 2015.

Tech companies were especially generous on parental leave compared with other industries. Google increased its parental leave to 24 weeks from 18 in 2021, Meta offers parents 20 weeks, and Microsoft gave 20 weeks for birthing parents and 12 weeks for nonbirthing parents. California, too, increased parental leave benefits to eight weeks from six. ZipRecruiter found that 849 out of 100,000 job postings offered paid parental leave in 2022, up from 95 out of 100,000 in 2017.

A month before Niki Woodall was set to return from maternity leave, she received an email letting her know that her job was being eliminated.Credit…Todd Anderson for The New York Times

This expansion of family-friendly benefits was partly a bid for female talent, as historically male-dominated workplaces made commitments to bringing in more women. It also reflected a cultural shift, as a new generation of workers, across genders, made it clear they wanted the flexibility to play an active role in child care, according to Joan Williams, a professor at the University of California College of the Law, San Francisco.

“There’s a sizable portion of young men who would be bent out of shape if they couldn’t take family leave,” Ms. Williams said. “Tech companies realized they could try to steal talent by having the best set of family leave policies around.”

With these new perks also came an uptick in the share of men taking paternity leave. In 2011, fewer than 5 percent of new fathers took more than two weeks of paternity leave. Today, 90 percent of men take more than seven weeks of leave if they are offered eight weeks, according to the Boston College Center for Work and Family. Some managers started proactively asking male workers how they planned to use their leave time, leaving behind the culture of assuming that fathers would take off only a few days.

People on parental leave typically have no special legal protection when it comes to mass layoffs. Many workers have a legal right to take parental leave for the birth or adoption of a child, under the Family and Medical Leave Act, a federal law, or similar state laws. But being on leave, including for disability, doesn’t usually protect people from job cuts that would have happened anyway.

“It’s jarring because people do view it as job-protected leave without understanding that there are limits on the protection,” said Megan Bisk, head of the employment law practice at Ropes & Gray. “Many people view it as a time when they’re not in a position to be job searching.”

If workers were laid off because they were on parental leave, that would be illegal — but it would be difficult to prove, Ms. Bisk explained, because the criteria companies use for layoffs aren’t disclosed to laid-off workers.

Emily St. James, 42, who was a senior correspondent at Vox, had been up late feeding her newborn the day before Vox Media announced its mass layoffs last month, so she slept in until 9 a.m. on the West Coast. She woke up to a text from Vox’s publisher, then checked her email and saw that she had been laid off. Ms. St. James’s termination date was set as the last day of her maternity leave, which is in late March, and she will get 24 weeks of severance pay beyond that.

“When it happened I think my wife said, ‘Well, isn’t that illegal?’” Ms. St. James recalled. “This has underscored for me the degree to which the social safety net for people who are new parents is very frayed.”

Vox declined to comment for this article.

The lack of legal guidelines has resulted in a patchwork of policies among companies. For those laid off while on parental leave, Amazon is offering to pay out the remainder of their time off, as well as severance packages. Meta and Google, on the other hand, aren’t paying for any remaining parental leave but are offering all employees several months of pay and additional severance.

Several workers who were laid off while on parental leave declined to speak for this article, citing fears of retribution because their severance packages are tied to agreements that they won’t speak to the media.

Niki Woodall, who was an engineering leadership recruiter at one of the world’s largest tech companies, agreed to share her experience without naming her employer. She had been at the company for five years when she told her bosses that she planned to take six months of maternity leave starting last summer. Their family-friendly attitude gave her the confidence to completely unplug from work. She said she left without thinking: “My job is at stake.”

A month before she was set to return, she received a personal email letting her know that her job was being eliminated. She turned to her 4-month-old daughter, who was sitting beside the family cat, Wesa, and said, “Mommy lost her job.”

“There’s a big misperception that you can’t be let go during maternity leave,” said Ms. Woodall, 39. She was disappointed to lose her job but not surprised because the layoffs hit many fellow recruiters.

Other parents who lost their jobs said they wondered whether their absence from the office contributed to executives’ deciding their position was redundant.

Some parental leave experts worry that fear of future layoffs could deter new fathers from taking their leave. As Brad Harrington, executive director of the Boston College Center for Work and Family, put it: “This will have a sobering effect.”

Mr. Gable had a previous layoff experience, from Zillow, in 2021 — at the height of the pandemic’s white hot job market. The career opportunities felt endless — including many at companies with generous policies toward parents. He chose Coda because he sensed that managers there were supportive of workers taking time for their families. As he prepares to apply for tech jobs yet again, his options feel far more limited.

“Its weird to have that pulled out from under you,” he said. “The market conditions are basically the opposite right now.”

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