NETWORK models the Gospel-driven paid parental leave commitment needed in the US church

by Jennifer Mertens

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When it comes to family-friendly workplace policies, NETWORK is leading the way for U.S. Catholics.

Since the 1970s, the national Catholic social justice lobby has emerged as a dynamic force for shaping federal policy in a manner consistent with Catholic social justice tradition. Specifically, NETWORK "educates, organizes, and lobbies for economic and social transformation" on federal policy issues ranging from immigration reform, to healthcare, ecology, peacemaking and more.

NETWORK not only advocates Gospel values, but also welcomes the challenge to live them. This willingness is particularly evident in the organization's efforts to foster greater coherence between its human resource policies and Catholic faith commitment.

In recent years, NETWORK recognized the growing need to reexamine its parental leave policies. While historically run by women religious, the organization now includes employees who are parents. As these women and men offer unique gifts and talents, they also bring specific economic needs.

Managing Director Paul Marchione describes how NETWORK committed itself to a "collaborative" and "intentional" dialogue on the topic of paid parental leave -- a conversation which consciously included the entire staff. From this process, the organization has strengthened their current policy to guarantee six weeks of fully paid maternity and paternity leave for the birth, adoption, or fostering of a child. They also voluntarily adhere to federal Family and Medical Leave Act regulations, which stipulate 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave.

NETWORK's policy reflects the care this community chooses to express for one another. The company has fewer than 20 full-time employees, so even a minimal paid leave guarantee demands an additional work commitment from other staff members, as well as the accompanying financial expense of hiring temporary employees.

Executive director and Nuns on the Bus icon, Social Service Sr. Simone Campbell candidly acknowledges the "economic consequences" of creating paid parental leave policies. At the same time, she remains unwavering in her resolve to promote -- and embody -- a truly "human-centered" workplace.

"This is what we have to do if we're honest about living our values," she affirms.

Campbell's dedication is certainly felt by Megan Dominy, NETWORK's membership assistant. Currently pregnant with her first child, Dominy describes the experience of "living through the lenses" of the very justice issues for which NETWORK advocates. With gratitude, she praises the "flexibility and understanding" of her office -- a work environment that is clearly grounded by personal relationships.

In fact, Dominy plans to take 12 weeks of paid leave after having her baby, supplementing the six weeks of parental leave with her unused vacation and sick leave. Fortunately for her, she will still have remaining sick/vacation time left after her leave, and is confident that NETWORK would accommodate any complications that may arise. Dominy will also be able to work from home two days a week as she transitions back to the office.

Without doubt, NETWORK's stance offers a much-needed example for the U.S. church. In both ecclesial settings and many Catholic-based organizations, parental leave remains a largely hidden issue.

Last year, I wrote a column on the widespread lack of paid parental leave in the institutional U.S. church. A nationwide survey of archdioceses/dioceses highlighted the current "patchwork" of policies that largely fail to support moms and dads working in our Catholic schools and parishes. Their struggles are all too common: new moms who exhaust their sick/vacation time to care for an infant, dads seeking additional employment outside the church, and parents needing to rely on relatives' financial support after childbirth.

A few reporting archdioceses/dioceses do offer limited paid leave. Of the 37 survey respondents, only one archdiocese offers a specific one-week guaranteed parental leave policy at 100 percent pay for all diocesan parents (as soon as benefits begin after date of hire). Three archdioceses and one diocese offer paid maternity/paternity leave of up to 20 days for some church employees (such as chancery offices) or if the employee meets certain eligibility stipulations (such as a specified length of employment).

As highlighted in a second column, all such examples starkly contrast with the six weeks of paid leave offered to USCCB employees.

Why is NETWORK's paid leave policy such a rarity within the U.S. Catholic world?

Campbell names two major contributors to this "developmental flaw" in the U.S. church. First, as mentioned earlier, she emphasizes a general hesitancy to grapple with the economic implications of providing paid leave -- and certainly, these challenges need to be honestly addressed. At the same time, she also highlights a persistent "blind eye" to the church's shifting ministerial landscape -- one increasingly composed of married women and men.

"The policies need to catch up to the reality of who is in the workforce," Campbell asserts.

At its core, this reality-check demands a courageous reevaluation of our commitment to lay employees. Do our words and actions proclaim a bold, fierce love for our parents? Dare we place the church's resources -- financial, spiritual, physical -- in service to this love?

The alternative is grim.

Without family-friendly workplace policies, we devalue -- even alienate -- those women and men who contribute so vitally to our faith. Already, the paucity of young employees in many ecclesial offices suggests that significant work awaits us.

So, how to respond?

Ultimately, NETWORK's example must inspire our similar resolve to develop robust paid parental leave standards in the U.S. church. Already, Catholic workplace policies are lagging behind many other top American employers. We need to embody the justice we preach.

In what parish, school, or Catholic organization are you involved? How could you raise this conversation in your own local context? Talk to your parish council. Meet with a human resource officer. Share the stories highlighted in my earlier columns -- and certainly, those experiences of your own.

While our advocacy efforts are much-needed in Catholic employment settings, we must also commit ourselves to promoting justice for all parent employees across our nation.

Take the long view. A broad social movement is needed to implement national paid parental leave standards in the United States. How do we creatively support small employers, especially, in offering paid leave? Hopefully, such a development would foster a climate in which employers who fall under a religious exemption (e.g. U.S. archdioceses/dioceses) are responsive to -- and encouraged -- in developing these new workplace expectations.

In building this much-needed social movement, NETWORK offers an invaluable resource.

"Mend the Gap" is a NETWORK initiative that addresses a range of federal policy issues related to economic disparity and the needs of people at the margins. Specifically, the lobby group articulates strong support for paid parental leave and for "clarifying reasonable accommodations" for pregnant workers. With a specific Lenten focus, "Mend the Gap" suggests a variety of action steps to advocate for paid family leave. Email or call your local state representative. Sign NETWORK's pledge. Contribute to a national dialogue on how to support our country's working moms and dads.

While NETWORK lobbies on specific federal policy issues, Catholic support for the "Mend the Gap" initiative is still critical -- not only for our nation, but also as a valuable consciousness-raising opportunity within Catholic workplaces. Especially given the church's pro-life commitment, Catholic employers need to assume greater leadership in promoting this issue.

Ultimately, we must each examine the driving priorities of our communal life -- both in Catholic settings, and also in our shared American experience. God's love compels us to engage in a "continued search for those social and economic structures that permit everyone to share in a community that is a part of a redeemed creation." Each one of us is needed to make this community a reality.

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