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  • 04.20.17

Could “Social Justice Benefits” Be The Newest Employment Trend?

Some companies are recognizing their employees’ social consciences by offering paid time off for political involvement, and even covering bail for employees arrested while peacefully protesting.

Could “Social Justice Benefits” Be The Newest Employment Trend?
[Photo: Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images]

When Alexandra Millatmal, a co-instructor at Omaha Code School, wanted time off on March 8 to participate in a Day Without a Woman, she wasn’t sure what to do. “I didn’t know if I should be asking for paid time off, or if I should just not show up for work,” she says.

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Even though she feels the leadership at Big Wheel Brigade (parent company to Omaha Code School) values her contributions and those of other women, Millatmal wanted to participate in the larger movement. “I think it’s important for [my students] to see my physical absence during the strike,” she says.

When Millatmal voiced this desire to her employer, they responded by adding two days of social justice paid time off (PTO). Rahul Gupta, president and founder of Big Wheel Brigade, says he considered making March 8 a company-wide day off, but he instead chose a more flexible policy to allow for different uses and causes. “The politics of my business partner and I are reflected by our employees, but that may not always be the case,” he explains. “We want to make sure that we’re inclusive of different viewpoints.”

While some protests fall on weekends, Millatmal says she appreciates the option to use her social justice PTO on state policy issues. “A lot of events that affect our state policies are happening in Lincoln,” she says. “If I want to go to the state capital and talk to [legislators], every hour counts.”

It’s not unusual for socially minded companies to give employees paid time off for volunteering, but in our hypercharged political climate, some employers like Big Wheel Brigade are taking the concept a step further by offering paid time off for civic engagement or supporting social justice initiatives in other ways.

Large employers like Comcast may allow employees to use their paid time off to protest, provided their department has someone else covering customers’ needs, but some employees have created more specific policies around social justice activities. Here’s a look at how other employers handle this issue.

One Day Of Pay And Matching Donations To The ACLU

Curtis Lee, CEO and founder of San Francisco-based Luxe, an app that provides valet parking in several major cities, said he and many employees were upset by the news of Trump’s travel ban in February. “I’m not the overly political type of CEO who gets involved in politics, but I do have strong views, particularly around this topic,” he says. Lee’s parents are U.S. citizens who emigrated from Korea, and he says he had to reassure several of his foreign-born engineers who were concerned about their visas and status in the country.

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“A lot of our workforce are not just full-time employees,” he explains. “They’re also valets [who are part-time employees], so missing out on a day of work is pretty meaningful. I didn’t want that to be the reason they couldn’t go out and express their views.” Valets could log into the app and get paid for a two-hour “vocalization shift” while protesting at the airport. Some were asked to provide protest selfies, but that was left up to the discretion of their city’s valet manager.

Full-time Luxe employees could get a full day of paid time off to use how they saw fit. “We broadened the scope of the policy to make it for anything that they chose to spend time on,” Lee says. “That’s also for people with opposing views, not that we had any, but if there were people that were pro-Trump or anti-immigration, we made that open to them.”

In addition, Luxe offered to match employees’ donations to the ACLU, up to $100 per employee.

Bail For Employees Arrested While Peacefully Protesting

Patagonia has a long history of environmental activism. For as long as anyone can remember, the outdoor gear and apparel retailer has had a policy of paying bail for employees who are arrested while peacefully protesting environmental or related issues. It will also provide paid time off for court appearances or other legal appointments related to the arrest. “We hire activists, we look for people who are so incredibly passionate about the environment that they want to protest,” says Dean Carter, the company’s vice president of human resources. “If you’re hiring a wild horse because of its passion and independence and then you keep it in the pen, that’s ridiculous.”

Carter says the company has never actually had to post bail for an employee, but he feels the policy encourages them to follow safe protest protocol. “We want them to participate in democracy, but we never want any of our employees in harm’s way,” he adds. To be eligible for bail from Patagonia, employees must undergo peaceful protest training (available through partner organizations such as Greenpeace) and must notify the employer of their protest participation in advance. Arrested spouses are also eligible, provided they’ve undergone the training.

Many Patagonia employees also participated in the Women’s March, and some assembled at a D.C. retail store. “Our retail locations are places where we mobilize communities,” Carter says.

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Time Off To Vote

A 2016 survey from the Society for Human Resource Management found that 86% of HR professionals surveyed say their organization lets employees take time off to vote (53% paid and 33% unpaid; state law requires some of these organizations to do so). However, many employees try to keep politics out of the workplace, so just over three-quarters do nothing to encourage employees to vote.

Last November, Kasey Edwards, cofounder and CEO of Helpr, a Los Angeles-based app that provides screened babysitters on demand, wanted her employees to vote, so she sent everyone a gift card for a local coffee shop, saying, “Here’s the ballot pamphlet, give yourself an opportunity to make an informed decision.” She says her employees could take as much time as they needed to cast their vote.

When the Day Without a Woman came up in March, Edwards says there was a lot of interest among her employees. “We feel like our team is highly engaged with the mission of seeing more women in leadership,” she says. She and her cofounder gave employees the option to take the day off, but because Helpr provides child care and low staffing could negatively impact other women, “Most people did decide that they wanted to come in and do what they felt was impactful for other women . . . for those who needed child care.”

Travel Expenses To The Women’s March

A little over a decade ago, Vermont-based Burton Snowboards had what some would call a locker room or frat house culture. “We grew quickly and we were drawing from very male-dominated industries like surfing, and it really started to take on a masculine culture,” says now president and CEO Donna Carpenter. She’s been working to improve gender diversity at the company since her husband and founder Jake Burton Carpenter looked at his global directors and noticed a gender imbalance he wanted to change.

Carpenter took Hillary Clinton’s presidential defeat hard, so she knew she wanted to attend the Women’s March in D.C. in January. “I thought, ‘Hey, I’m sure there are Burton women who want to go and I can make it easier by getting hotel rooms and transportation and making an event out of it,’” she says. About 30 people from Burton attended the march, and the marketing department created signs with sayings such as, “1968 is calling. Don’t answer.”

The company suffered some pushback from customers who disagreed with Carpenter’s stance (some even claimed her employees were paid to protest, even though the Women’s March fell on a Saturday). However, Carpenter says the backlash has been less than she expected and the trip has boosted employee morale. “I think it has energized us to . . . think about how we double down on our efforts to get more women in the company and more female participants in our sport,” she says.

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Can We Expect To See More Of These Benefits In The Future?

Yes, says Alexandra Levit, workplace expert and author of Blind Spots: The Ten Business Myths You Can’t Afford to Believe. She predicts that a general increase in corporate social responsibility and growing demand for more flexible work will drive this change.

“Boundaries between your personal and professional life are blurring,” Levit says. “We’re going to see more integration of what you believe and being able to come to work and say you support a certain cause.” Rather than just jumping on the bandwagon, she recommends that employers ask their employees for input first and give employees flexibility to use the time as they see fit.

Lynda Zugec, managing director for The Workforce Consultants, points out that this type of benefit makes the most sense when social justice activities align with the company’s goals or vision. “An organization whose mission it is to support abused women may decide to support any and all staff that would like to protest or support a similar and related cause against violence,” she says, adding that “if the social justice PTO furthers a cause for which the organization was designed to support, the organization is much more likely to encourage and establish PTO for such activities.”

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