In an announcement Tuesday afternoon that deftly weaved together the personal, the corporate and the political, Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg said the company would be giving all of its employees six weeks of family leave to care for ailing family members.
She also announced two other generous leave benefits: three days of additional time off for employees caring for a family member with a short-term illness, like a child with the flu, and 20 days of bereavement leave, twice as much as before.
“This is personal for me,” Sandberg told a packed crowd Tuesday at the Makers conference, a women’s leadership event sponsored by AOL held in Rancho Palos Verdes, California. “I lost my husband very suddenly. Facebook provided leave and flexibility, and now we’re doing more.”
Sandberg was back to work 10 days after her husband, Dave Goldberg, died in 2015.
The expanded benefits are a step up in Silicon Valley’s ongoing benefits war, which so far has mainly been confined to offering leave time to new parents.
Sandberg, who is widely known for leading the conversation about feminism and women in Corporate America, also seemed to be indirectly responding to critics who noted her absence from the women’s marches that took place immediately after President Donald Trump’s inauguration. She’s been asked repeatedly to take a stronger stance against Trump, even as she’s publicly opposed several of his policies.
“It is a challenging time, but anytime there’s a real challenge is not a time to retreat,” she said at the conference. “We know what the policy agenda is for women,” she added, calling for equal pay, paid parental and family leave, and better education.
The U.S. is one of only a handful of countries in the world that offers no paid maternity leave. It is the only developed economy that doesn’t mandate employers offer paid sick leave. The federal Family and Medical Leave Act offers unpaid time off to certain workers to care for children or family members.
The amount of bereavement leave Facebook will now offer is generous even for tech companies, which typically give just a few days off to workers who are dealing with a death in the family.
But the paid family leave Sandberg announced is perhaps even more groundbreaking. It can be taken every 12 months.
Over the past few years, tech companies have been in an arms race to offer workers increasing amounts of paid maternity and paternity leave. Facebook itself in 2016 increased the amount of parental leave it offers to four months for both men and women who welcome a new child into their family.
The new paid family leave benefit ― available to all workers, not just parents ― is a clear acknowledgement that welcoming a new child is hardly the only personal life event that workers need to handle.
“Recognizing the range of needs people have in their lives outside of work is really a positive step,” Ellen Bravo, the director of Family Values @ Work, a nonprofit coalition of groups pushing for paid parental and sick leave in the U.S., told The Huffington Post. “We’ve been pleased to see so many companies expand parental leave, but we know there are many other loved ones in workers’ lives who may need care; and there are also times when we need to pause and care for ourselves and grieve.”
Sandberg on Tuesday challenged other companies to step up and offer similar benefits to their workers. She also called for public policies that would do the same, implicitly recognizing that not all businesses can afford to be as generous as a multibillion-dollar tech company. It’s a topic she brought up at a widely criticized meeting between tech leaders and Trump last month, according to a source close to Sandberg.
“People should be able both to work and be there for their families. No one should face this trade-off,” Sandberg writes in a Facebook post that also announced the new benefits. “We need public policies that make it easier for people to care for their children and aging parents and for families to mourn and heal after loss.”
Also on Tuesday, in a sign of how wide the gulf between white-collar Silicon Valley workers and the rest of the country has grown, two Democratic congresswomen reintroduced legislation that would give U.S. workers paid parental leave.
The legislators are pinning their hopes on public statements made by the president’s daughter Ivanka Trump, HuffPost’s Marina Fang writes.
Sandberg, who launched a conversation about women in the workplace when she published her corporate feminist manifesto Lean In in 2013, has been remarkably candid about her grieving process since her husband died.
Dealing with her own loss has moved Sandberg to acknowledge, among other things, that the version of feminism she wrote about in her best-selling book was incomplete.
“Some people felt that I did not spend enough time writing about the difficulties women face when they have an unsupportive partner, or no partner at all,” Sandberg wrote in a Mother’s Day post last year. “They were right.”
Sandberg recently said she “feels bad” that she didn’t attend the women’s march.
However, over the past couple of weeks Sandberg has spoken up: first to protest the Trump administration’s reinstatement of the anti-abortion global gag rule, which cuts off funding to organizations offering health care services around the world. (She recently announced a $1 million donation to Planned Parenthood.) Then Sandberg joined Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg ― and most of her other peers in the tech industry ― in condemning Trump’s executive order on immigration.
This story has been updated to note Sandberg’s remarks at a tech leaders meeting with Trump.