John Downey , Senior Staff WriterJan 26, 2017, 11:44am EST

Duke Energy has expanded its parental leave policy, adding six more weeks of paid leave for birth mothers and giving fathers six weeks of paid leave as well.

The Charlotte-based company says the expansion is designed to help employees balance their home and work lives. And the expansion is important for Duke’s efforts to recruit and retain highly skilled workers, says Chief Human Resources Officer Melissa Anderson.

The additional paid leave for mothers and fathers applies to births, adoptions and foster-care placements. Employees can take the leave within the first 16 weeks of the birth, adoption or placement. That means new parents could extend the time that a child is cared for in the home by allowing one spouse to take leave after the other. Same-sex domestic partners also qualify for the additional benefits.

Piedmont later

The new policy will not, however, immediately extend to the 1,465 workers at Duke subsidiary Piedmont Natural Gas. The more generous benefits are not expected to be afforded to Piedmont workers until Jan. 1, 2018, says Piedmont spokeswoman Loree Elswick.

Duke (NYSE: DUK) bought Piedmont in October. Piedmont employee benefits will remain the same as they were before the acquisition until all benefits are combined into a single offering. Duke expects that to be completed early next year, Elswick says.

Paige Meltzer, director of the Women’s Center at Wake Forest University, says Duke’s benefits are among the more generous being offered by employers in the United States.

Other companies

The Family Medical Leave Act requires employers to offer new mothers and fathers up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave. But Meltzer says only about 20% of employers offer any amount of paid leave.

Duke says only 17% extend paid leave to fathers as well as mothers, according to a study compiled in 2015.

Last week, the coffee chain Starbucks (NASDAQ: SBUX) announced it was offering paid leave to fathers as well as mothers. Meltzer says marquee corporate brands such as Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) and Netflix (NASDAQ: NFLX) also extend paid leave to fathers. Bank of America (NYSE: BAC) has offered paid paternal and maternal leave since 2009 and last year extended the paid benefits from 12 weeks to 16.

Life balance

Anderson says Duke began seriously exploring the possibility of adding paid parental leave to its benefits package two years ago. She says that was in response to strong employee interest and growing competition among companies for the best workers.

“Paid parental leave will give Duke Energy employees important quality time to bond with their new children without the financial pressure of having to immediately return to work,” she says. “Coupled with our other work-family benefits, paid parental leave also will help us recruit and retain the next generation of highly skilled workers.”

Meltzer says that paid family leave also improves morale and productivity for workers — another plus for employers.

She says more companies are offering or expanding paid-leave policies for new and expecting parents. That comes despite the lack of any national policy on such paid leave.

She says work-life balance issues such as paid leave have become increasingly important for companies as they seek to recruit millennials, who expect more from employers on such issues than workers in previous generations.

Duke Energy employs about 29,000 people nationwide, including close to 8,400 in the Charlotte region.

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