US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Family leave is a Catholic issue

Why Catholic institutions should strive for policies that support parents and kids.

By Jennon Bell Hoffmann | Print this pagePrint |
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Right after Tralonne Shorter began a new job at a women’s organization, she learned she was pregnant with her first child. What should have been an exciting year of preparation and anticipation was mired by the dismal realities Tralonne and many other women face when figuring out maternity leave. The women’s organization she worked for did not have a paid maternity leave policy, and because she was a new hire Tralonne wasn’t eligible for anything except short-term disability. After giving birth to her son, Tralonne was back at work in six weeks because her family could not afford any more time without a paycheck. 

“It was really hard on all fronts, personally. But 4 out of 10 women who have children under 18 are the primary breadwinners in their household, so it’s hard for many, many more,” Tralonne says.

The irony that her employer—a women’s organization—didn’t offer support for child-rearing women was not lost on Tralonne. How many mission-based organizations are simply “talking the talk?”

While the Catholic Church itself is not a business, many Catholic businesses share and spread the message of the gospel and the ideals of the church. Though Catholic businesses are mostly driven by this mission, the reality is that in order to succeed, Catholic organizations must operate as complying businesses. When faced with restrictive hurdles, many Catholic organizations look for creative ways to both live by their mission to help and support God’s people and sustain themselves as a modern business.

This creativity has resulted in a variety of family-forward policies within Catholic businesses and organizations that provide support and care for employees and their families, including remote work and employee-assistance programs. These companies go beyond government mandates to make sure they both operate efficiently and effectively share their Catholic mission.

Initial steps for workplace improvement

On February 5, 1993 President Bill Clinton signed into law the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) as one of his first pieces of legislation. While there was some trepidation about the bill, overall the bipartisan support for better, more realistic workplace protocol for American workers and companies was optimistic and energizing. Now, 25 years later, FMLA is a pivotal staple in the American workforce and a pillar on which many families stand to create better lives. 

At its core FMLA ushered in a recognition that employees have responsibilities outside their jobs and need to give due attention to those responsibilities—for example, the birth, bonding, and care for a newborn, care for aging parents, or time for recuperation after surgery or major life events—without fear of unemployment. The introduction of FMLA provided the safety net most families, namely women, were missing when deciding how to raise a family and contribute financially to their household. Employees no longer had to weigh the possibility of losing a job to care for their dependents, and companies helped create better employee retention and workplace environments. 

Laws must reflect the society in which it governs and that means evolving with the culture and times. In May 2017 the Pew Research Center reported several facts about the state of American mothers. Most telling is that women are waiting longer to have children, meaning that many are 10, 15, 20 years into a career when they do. Many families cannot afford to lose a second income, and mothers suffer for not having a support system in place for when they return. FMLA can continue to help address the needs of women, their families, the employers, and society only when more inclusive family care policies are enacted. 

Currently, FMLA does not guarantee paid leave, and many organizations are working to bridge this gap. Lucas Swanepoel, vice president of social policy for Catholic Charities USA, says, “FMLA is an important idea behind pro-life in that it makes sure to provide work environments that support mothers and women. The logical next step to FMLA is paid family leave and more thoughtful, beneficial approaches to care for the employee, which means to also care for the family.”

The Catholic approach

Being openly dedicated to the betterment of employees and their families remains a gold standard for Catholic organizations that align themselves with the Catholic mission. Some Catholic companies have begun to go beyond FMLA regulations to further support employees and their families. For example, the Archdiocese of Chicago has 7,500 employees eligible for up to 12 weeks paid parental leave following the birth or adoption of a child for employees with at least one year of service; employees with less than a full year receive one week of paid parental leave for each full month of benefits-eligible service prior to the birth or adoption of the child. 

“This is who we are, this is what we believe, and this is what we want to encourage in the community by leading through our example,” says Chris Cannova, director of personnel services for the Archdiocese of Chicago. Cannova says that such generous and forward-thinking policies are deliberate cultural choices set by the archbishop. “Over the years, our archbishops have chosen to take the lead on providing benefits that exemplify just treatment of employees and support for families,” he says. 

Where possible, a company might provide more paid time off (PTO) that employees can use in addition to official leave, helping lessen the stress of unpaid leave. The Archdiocese of Cincinnati, for example, allows five days of paid parental leave. 

NETWORK, an advocacy group for economic and social transformation founded by Catholic women religious, not only fights for social justice on Capitol Hill but also is a leading example of family-friendly workplace policies that reflect the current and future nature of families and women in the workforce. After her experience with her employer after the birth of her son, Tralonne Shorter decided to use her talents and experience to advocate for family-friendly workplaces. She took a significant pay cut to join NETWORK as a key lobbyist in Washington, D.C. because of their forward-thinking family leave policies. 

“Being committed to being pro-life, NETWORK has found ways to weave that thought and philosophy into their policies—they have put consideration into the working family. It’s an attractive feature for me, and I’m here because they are so committed to talking the talk,” she says. 

As a senior government relations advocate and a mother, Tralonne spends her days fighting on the Hill so that realistic and necessary policies for working families and women are extended to all.

“[NETWORK] said, ‘We understand that you’re a mother, you’re working on these issues, we have workplace policies in place to help support employees,’ ’’ Tralonne says. “There is a recognition that employees have a life outside the office, and as a Christian I appreciate that. This small employer is making strides in a way that larger employers are not.”

Currently NETWORK’s policy is to offer six weeks paid maternity, which is done by supplementing the typical short-term disability benefit. Where employers might offer 60 percent pay for short-term disability, NETWORK pays the other 40 percent to supplement employee benefits.

Catholic companies think creatively

NETWORK is a shining example of what could be, but unfortunately it is in the minority. Catholic companies might not have the financial budget available to supplement with PTO, so they look for other creative ways that still benefit employees with a family to care for. In these scenarios, the company decides for itself the best way to live its Catholic mission within its means as a business. It’s a delicate balance, but one that continues to prove important for many Catholic organizations. 

One such organization is Catholic Charities USA, a national membership organization that provides valuable leadership and support to the more than 160 Catholic Charities agencies and affiliates across the country. Swanepoel, the vice president of social policy at Catholic Charities USA, says his organization is constantly looking to connect agencies, encourage conversations, and ultimately share best practices so that many Catholic agencies can find creative solutions to use in their own community. 

“Catholic social teaching informs what we do. We live by what we preach,” Swanepoel says. “There’s a similar obligation to serve people in need, plus be an example of what Catholic organizations can do and, more broadly, what any company or organization can do for the person and family.” 

In 2018 Catholic Charities USA is incorporating training for members on the issue of family care and family-focused policies, including a three-part series about the Catholic Church’s teaching for pro-family workplaces. Swanepoel says these meetings will focus on the current policies, the best practices, and how to apply these solutions to communities of varying factors (demographic, economic, linguistic, etc). Catholic Charities USA is also sponsoring a leadership training institution for new diocesan leaders to educate them on available resources and how to apply solutions for their communities. 

Additional solutions some Catholic businesses are implementing include:

Child Care
Some Catholic institutions extend benefits that are substantial perks for employees and their families, such as on-site child care. In addition to a maternity leave policy, Marquette University, a Jesuit school in Milwaukee, provides the Marquette University Child Care Center (MUCCC), an on-site, employer-sponsored nonprofit facility dedicated to quality care for children of all of those who make up the Marquette University community, including students, staff, faculty, and alumni. Though the wait list is long, having day care within steps of a parent’s office or classroom is invaluable, says Amy Kaboskey, director of MUCCC. 

“In this day and age, I believe it is necessary for families to have two incomes, and [MUCCC] is a great option for families. Parents enjoy on-site care because they can stop in when they like; it is a great benefit for nursing moms,” says Kaboskey.  

Flexible Schedule or Remote Work
As the gig economy gains traction, more and more companies—Catholic and secular—are seeing the benefit of incorporating flexible schedules and/or telecommuting opportunities for employees. For many families, being accessible for their children takes a priority over other workplace perks, and with the pervasive ease of working from home, many Catholic companies are opening up to the idea of an online workforce. 

An editor and mother of three, Cathy Joyce of Chicago started looking at a nontraditional work set-up after her first daughter was born. “I was a normal full-time employee, and after I had Clare it hit me like a ton of bricks—I just couldn’t leave her. I asked if it was possible to work from home, and my company said they’d try it temporarily. But it went on for years because it worked for them and for me.”

Recognizing that her job as an editor and writer allowed for remote work, Cathy also credits her employer, a Catholic educational publisher, with being open-minded and keeping with the trends of modern workplaces.

“On my end, I showed them I respected the position, never missed a deadline, always followed the rules, went to meetings; I showed them I took this situation seriously,” says Cathy. “On a personal level, it could not have been better. Having that opportunity probably made my whole family succeed, not just myself. Being able to work from home allowed me to bring money to the house and have another life outside of raising kids, which is important for me mentally.”

Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers also offers remote work opportunities, citing that employees appreciate the trust it offers to do a job they identify with and care deeply about. With offices located in Westchester, New York the employees appreciate a flexible schedule that allows them to avoid the infamous New York City traffic and commute. 

“People want a work-life balance so an employee might work longer hours in fewer days but spend less time commuting. What matters more to people here is the work Maryknoll does, and they can see for themselves the impact directly,” says Jody Turner, human resources manager for Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers. 

Employee Assistance Programs
Another perk for employees and their families that employers provide is a service that’s growing in popularity among all companies, Catholic or not. Utilizing Employee Assistance Programs, or EAPs, is another way for Catholic businesses to support their employees through the life events and happenings that occur outside the workplace. 

Many companies, including Benedictine University and Loyola Press, a Catholic publisher, implement EAPs to help alleviate stress and provide support to employees for a variety of issues that affect their home life, such as caring for aging parents, mental health and care, and financial advice. By offering resources that mitigate areas of crises and strife, Catholic employers are showing “care for the whole person,” or cura personalis, a major tenet of Ignatian spirituality. 

Most EAP plans are provided free of charge to employees by their employers and incorporated as additional service to help keep employees focused and happy at work. EAP services are usually made available not only to the employee but also to the employee’s spouse, children, and nonmarital partner living in the same household as the employee, because any strife at home can affect others. 

Implementing an EAP plan is a benefit that aligns with Catholic social teaching. Maryknoll’s Turner says the EAP plan for the U.S. Catholic society of priests and brothers with affiliate companies, including Orbis Books, has been very successful for more than two decades. 

“We have a great EAP, and it’s open to family as well. Maryknoll has had high utilization—higher than average—because it’s a benefit to the employees and their families. People have found help and resources for wellness, health, wills, legal training, and [the EAP is] constantly making more services available,” she says.

Not surprisingly, some of the EAP plans offered by Catholic companies are from Catholic-based organizations, such as Catholic Charities, Catholic Family Center in Rochester, New York, and Catholic Family Services, based in St. Louis and utilized by the Archdiocese of St. Louis.  

Tuition Remission
For many families, a Catholic higher education experience is simply not in the budget, but for the 540 full-time employees of Benedictine University in Lisle, Illinois, having an accessible college education is a considerably generous benefit that affects the entire employee’s family. Benedictine University “strives to promote the common good and to assist individuals to lead lives of balance, generosity, and integrity.” 

Betsy Rhinesmith, director of human resources, says that by offering tuition remission not only for employees but also the spouse and dependents of the employee, Benedictine University is living by their mission: to be an inclusive academic community dedicated to teaching and learning, scholarship and service, truth and justice, as inspired by the Catholic intellectual tradition, the social teaching of the church, and the principles of wisdom in the Rule of St. Benedict. 

Considering the cost of a college education, and a Catholic one at that, being able to ease that financial burden for employees and their families is an investment in the employee morale and their ability to provide for their families, and it also continues an important educational legacy for Catholics who otherwise could not afford—or dream of attending—a four-year Catholic university.

Mission above margin

In 2016 New York senator Kirsten Gillibrand said, “Our policies are stuck in the Mad Men era. We are the only industrialized nation that does not guarantee workers paid family leave. Many women can’t even get a paid day off to give birth.”

While FMLA allows for job security, it doesn’t address the other big issue of compensation. However, Catholic businesses are heeding the call to mission and support for others, like the Archdiocese of Chicago. 

“Some of the archdiocese’s programs, such as family and medical leave, predate the enactment of similar state and federal laws by decades and provide greater benefits that those newer laws require,” says Chris Cannova, senior director, human resources operations, Archdiocese of Chicago. 

Other Catholic companies, like NETWORK and Catholic Charities USA, are already hard at work on Capitol Hill, lobbying across party lines to push this issue to the forefront.

Already there are a couple notable trailblazers at the state level: California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island offer paid family leave through employee-paid payroll taxes. As of January 1, 2018 the New York State Paid Family Leave Program provides New Yorkers job-protected, paid leave to bond with a new child, care for a loved one with a serious health condition, or to help relieve family pressures when someone is called to active military service. According to, during 2018 employees “can take up to eight weeks of Paid Family Leave and receive 50 percent of [their] average weekly wage, capped at 50 percent of the New York State average weekly wage.”

As Cathy Joyce, Tralonne Shorter, and thousands of working mothers in America know, finding the right work/life balance requires a lot of juggling and struggling. Add in rigid and outdated workplace policies, and it is the families that suffer. As pursuers of social justice and dignity of the family, we can expect Catholic companies to continue to hone their mission to align with the best policies and emerging protocols for their employees and families. If Jesus was a CEO, isn’t that what he would do?

This article also appears in the April 2018 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 83, No. 4, pages 12–16).


Tuesday, April 10, 2018