Parents who work at WEX Inc. have a new perk: up to six weeks of fully paid parental leave for the birth or adoption of a child.

The South Portland payment processing technology firm has joined a small but growing list of employers that offer paid leave to both male and female employees for childbirth and adoption. WEX implemented the new policy Sept. 1, retroactive to the beginning of this year.

That’s good news for Johann Sabbath, a strategic planner at WEX whose daughter, Pemma Sabbath, was born on April 27. He used two weeks of vacation time to be with his wife, Yasmin Mahal, and their newborn daughter. Now he has the vacation time back, along with the option to take four more fully paid weeks off.

An employee at WEX Inc. in South Portland, Johann Sabbath of Portland used two weeks of vacation when his wife, Yasmin Mahal, gave birth to their daughter, Pemma, in April. A retroactive change to his company's family leave policy allows the new dad to get his vacation time back and take another four weeks of paid time off.

Johann Sabbath of Portland, an employee of WEX Inc. in South Portland, used two weeks of vacation when his wife, Yasmin Mahal, gave birth to their daughter, Pemma, in April. A retroactive change to his company’s family leave policy allows the new dad to get his vacation time back and take another four weeks of paid time off. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

“It enables me to take time off and pinch-hit with childcare,” said Sabbath, whose wife also has a career. “I think this new policy is awesome for expecting parents or those looking to adopt children.”

The new benefit is in addition to WEX’s existing maternity leave allowance, which provides up to eight weeks of short-term disability leave at two-thirds pay for female workers. WEX, which has 2,600 employees worldwide, including about 760 in Maine, had no prior leave policy for new fathers.

According to the Alexandria, Virginia-based Society for Human Resource Management, only 17 percent of U.S. companies offer paid parental leave to both male and female employees. Only 21 percent provide paid maternal leave to female workers, it said.

WEX’s parental leave policy only applies to the company’s full-time U.S. workers, but Senior Vice President of Human Resources Jenifer Rinehart said most other countries in which the company operates already have government-mandated parental leave policies that meet or exceed the new WEX policy.

“In the U.S., we lag behind in robust benefits for new parents,” Rinehart said.

Those benefits vary by industry, said Amie Parker, state director-elect of the human resource management society’s Maine chapter. “There are some industries that are ahead of the curve.”

For instance, colleges and universities, law firms and technology companies are among those most likely to offer paid parental leave, Parker said. Large corporations also are more likely than small businesses to offer the benefit, she said, adding that many small businesses cannot afford to pay workers for parental leave.

Portlanders Yasmin Mahal and Johann Sabbath with their infant daughter, Pemma Sabbath. Johann Sabbath works for WEX Inc. and is benefiting from the company's new parental leave policy.

Yasmin Mahal and Johann Sabbath of Portland with their infant daughter, Pemma Sabbath. Photo courtesy Wex Inc. Photo courtesy of WEX Inc.

Rinehart said WEX researched the costs and benefits of adding a parental leave policy and found that the pros outweighed the cons. For example, a California study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research found that 87 percent of businesses that implemented parental leave policies on a trial basis reported no impact on their bottom line. Another 9 percent said they actually saved money because of decreased employee turnover and other benefit payments. Only 4 percent said the policy had a negative financial impact.

WEX also found that companies with parental leave policies gain a distinct edge over their competitors when it comes to attracting new talent, Rinehart said.

“It will definitely help us from a recruitment perspective,” she said.

WEX found evidence that parental leave policies benefit parents and children, as well. A study in Iceland by the Icelandic Review of Politics and Administration found that parents who take time off for childbirth and adoption are 70 percent more likely to share in child-rearing duties, and 18 percent less likely to suffer from depression.

WEX employee Johann Sabbath, who is a new father, recently took advantage of his company's parental leave policy. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

WEX employee Johann Sabbath, who is a new father, recently took advantage of his company’s parental leave policy. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Adding parental leave for adoptions is important because the average adopting family must spend seven to 10 days in the birth state of the adopted child, according to the Association of Administrators of the Interstate Compact on the Placement of Children. The time requirement can be even longer for adopted children born in foreign countries.

Parker said few employers in Maine offer parental leave benefits, in part because the state is dominated by small businesses. Still, WEX isn’t the only company in the state that provides employee benefits to parents who are not the birth mother or primary caregiver.

Idexx Laboratories Inc. in Westbrook implemented a “bonding leave” benefit in 2014, which provides two weeks of fully paid leave to non-birth mother parents to bond with their newborn or adopted child, in addition to its paid maternal leave policy of six weeks at half pay and $5,000 in financial assistance toward the cost of adopting a child.

In general, Parker said, changes in family dynamics and increased adoption rates have helped bring the issue of parental leave further into the spotlight.

“Employers that are more progressive are moving in that direction,” she said.