What If We Paid Employees When They Couldn’t Work?

I recently listened to an interview with Neil Gaiman, the award-winning author and screen writer. The host asked him an inevitable question: Where do you get your ideas? While Gaiman is known for his irreverent responses, he instead referred to the answer he gave his daughter’s 7-year-old classmates to a similar inquiry: “You get ideas when you ask yourself simple questions. The most important of the questions is just, ‘What if … ?’ ”

As soon as Gaiman said those words, I realized I’ve been carrying a “what if” question with me for a long time: What if we paid employees when they couldn’t work?

I tested this question while speaking at a conference for human resource leaders on the heels of reading MetLife’s 17th annual U.S. Employee Benefit Trends Study and talking with Meredith Ryan-Reid, a senior vice president in the carrier’s group benefits division. Ryan-Reid indicated “flexibility” was the biggest trend in this year’s survey.

The conference audience’s response to my query ranged from head-nodding acknowledgment that we needed to tackle the associated topics of paid leave and flexibility with more rigor to a frustrated statement that “employees want us to pay them for not working.”

As if anticipating the reaction to MetLife’s leading observation about what employees want, Ryan-Reid was quick to state that employees’ desire for flexibility does not mean people want to do less or work less. Instead, the need for flexibility is a reflection of how work and life now blend together.

In fact, Ryan-Reid believes a lack of workplace flexibility is a big driver of the growth in the gig economy. “Women are leaving the workforce to start their own businesses so they can gain flexibility in how they live and work,” she said.

When MetLife asked employees what emerging benefits interested them most, more than a third of their responses were associated with workplace flexibility and paid absence, including unlimited paid time off, phased retirement, paid sabbatical, and the ability to work abroad or take work assignments in a foreign country. (Note: Do not groan when you see unlimited PTO at the top of the list. Data from the limited number of employers who have implemented such policies reveal employees take less time off in this structure than in more traditional paid-time-off programs.)

As if anticipating the MetLife survey’s emerging-benefits wish list, the Australia branch of EY introduced three flexible workplace policies on April 1. The accounting firm now offers six to 12 weeks of employee-funded “life leave” each year to allow associates more time to travel, work part-time or just enjoy the time off. In addition to “life leave,” which can be taken in one or two blocks of time, EY also implemented policies that allow workers to work full-time during the school year and take school holidays off, or the ability to adopt a part-time work arrangement for up to three months.

EY Oceania’s HR leader said these policies address a growing employee demand for flexible work environments in general and were created for the entire population–not simply working parents. This is an important approach to keep in mind in the U.S., since 50 percent of both men and women between the ages of 20 and 65 are single.

Back in the U.S., Springfield, Mass.-based Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Co. introduced sweeping improvements to its employee-benefits structure earlier this year. Among the changes, the company removed conditional definitions of “family,” explained Claudia Coplein, the head of health and wellness for the insurance and financial-services firm. “Everyone’s circle of loved ones is different and can include former college roommates and neighbors,” she said.

For me, this definition of family reflects the concepts held in the Hawaiian culture of “ohana,” which includes people who are blood relatives, friends, neighbors and other important members of your social groups.

As part of its benefits expansion, MassMutual expanded or altered four of its leave programs, for which all employees are eligible from the first day of employment:

  • Paid absence: The carrier revoked its tenure-based structure for occasional illness days and short-term disability and created a level playing field for all associates. Short-term disability now begins on the first day of absence and covers 100% of salary for the first 10 weeks. The remaining 16 weeks are paid at 60% of salary, and MassMutual pays the STD premiums. The employer did not change its long-term-disability plan provisions, in which it pays the premiums to provide 50% of salary for absences longer than six months and allows employees to “buy up” to 70% of coverage of salary.
  • Caregiving: Employees receive the equivalent of up to two fully paid weeks off each year to care for any person the worker considers to be a family member and whose serious health condition meets the family-medical-leave definition.
  • Maternity and parental leave: MassMutual did something unusual for maternity-related absences. It removed absences related to pregnancy from its STD plan and created a standalone maternity-leave program in which employees receive up to 10 weeks off at 100% of their salaries. At the end of 10 weeks, women may elect to participate in the parental-leave program (available to all new parents), which provides eight weeks of full salary. Workers may tap into this program on an intermittent or continuous basis for up to one year. One caveat to keep in mind is that MassMutual did not create a maternity-leave policy that protects female employees’ rights to the same or similar jobs when they return to work if they take longer than the standard protections under family-medical leave. This could mean that a woman who takes 10 weeks of maternity leave and eight continuous weeks of parental leave could be without employment at the end of 18 weeks.
  • Bereavement: MassMutual has taken the position that its employees need time to grieve and heal emotionally following the loss of a loved one. So, it developed an industry-leading bereavement policy that allows employees to take up to 15 days off at full salary for each loss of a loved one–again, with the employee deciding who fits that definition.

As we consider the ways EY, MassMutual and others are handling the call for paid absence, my hope for all HR executives is this: The next time you hear the question, “What if we paid employees when they couldn’t work?” your response will be: “What if we did, and what could that look like?”


Carol Harnett
Carol Harnett is HRE’s Benefits columnist. She is a widely respected consultant, speaker, writer and trendspotter in the fields of employee benefits, health and productivity management, health and performance innovation, and value-based health. Follow her on Twitter via @carolharnett and on her video blog, The Work.Love.Play.Daily. She can be emailed at hreletters@lrp.com.