Danone North America, whose portfolio of brands include Activia, Dannon, Horizon Organic and YoCrunch, has expanded its parental bonding leave policy to its manufacturing employees, enabling them to take 18 weeks’ paid time off within the first year of the birth or adoption of a child. The company in a Dec. 1 announcement said the benefit is now available to all of the company’s 5,700 U.S. employees.

The policy “is an evolution of the company’s previous practice of providing its frontline manufacturing employees up to 2 weeks of paid leave in addition to allowing the use of paid time off or vacation for such absences,” the company said in a statement.

In pointing out that the initiative is gender neutral, the company noted that the policy recognized that “parenting is a shared responsibility between caregivers” and that it “is intended to create a more equitable workplace and in doing so, challenge traditional assumptions on caregiving and help advance equality for all.”

Childcare and family leave benefits have taken on even more importance during the pandemic with daycare centers closed or operating at reduced capacity and schools closing, opening and then closing again in response to COVID-19. An August survey from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation reported employers see child care as a barrier to employees’ ability to fully return to work. That barrier has had consequences; 32% of employers said they lost employees due to the pandemic, with half citing child care concerns, according to a Nov. 19 report from the foundation.

The issue is particularly acute for women: A study from Cleo found that women in recent months lost 49% more work time than men and 61% of women said they feel responsible for the majority of caregiving in their partnership, compared to 26% of men. The study also said women are 15% more likely to adjust their hours because of childcare and that a quarter of respondents said they are looking for a new job to “better accommodate their dual role.”

Many employees faced inadequate support for caregiving even before the pandemic. In January, business-to-business review platform Clutch found that a scarcity of child care benefits had caused problems with job performance, turnover and financial hardship.

Managerial training could provide some help, experts have suggested. The Disability Management Employer Coalition (DMEC) said in a July report that managers lack training on the benefits and resources available to caregivers.

The pandemic also prompted paid leave for caregivers for certain COVID-19 related instances. Caregivers at certain employers with fewer than 500 employees received federal support in the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which provides leave that can be taken to address certain caregiving needs due to COVID-19. However, the federal law is set to expire at the end of the year.

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