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Moms and dads, including partners and adoptive parents, who work at General Mills will soon get more time to bond with their babies while those with an aging parent or seriously ill family members will get paid time off to care for them.

The Golden Valley, Minn.-based food maker on Wednesday unveiled an expanded paid time off policy for new parents and family caregivers, designed to keep the company competitive among peers at a time when workers increasingly value policies that help them better manage demands at work and in their personal life.

"To be honest, we were starting to fall behind," said Jacqueline Williams-Rolls, chief human resource officer at General Mills. "Our goal is to attract and retain superior talent."

Beginning Jan. 1, all new parents will get 12 weeks paid time off, with new birth moms getting an additional six to eight weeks for their physical recovery for a total of 18 to 20 weeks. Additionally, caregivers will now receive two weeks paid time off every year to deal with immediate family members struggling with serious health conditions. All of the new time off is at full pay.

This is a significant bump for the company's maternity leave, which now only gives new birth moms six weeks paid time off. Dads, adoptive parents and partners currently get two weeks paid time off after bringing home a new baby.

General Mills knew it needed to improve its paid leave policies, Williams-Rolls said. Five generations of employees work at the company, with different life-stage challenges putting strains on their time.

Williams-Rolls said her team surveyed employees on the barriers to "work-life integration" and compared their benefits to companies in consumer packaged goods and other industries.

The millennial generation, with the oldest members now in their late 30s, generally places a higher value on paid parental leave than previous generations, a recent Ernst & Young survey found. Contributing to this is that they are more likely to have a dual-income household. About 78 percent of full-time workers in this age group have a spouse or partner who works full-time, the survey found. That's nearly twice the rate of Boomer couples, with 47 percent who both work full-time.

"This is a very practical benefit -- access to take paid time off -- that workers need but still far too few people have," said Vicki Shabo, vice president of workplace policies for the National Partnership for Women and Families.

As of December 2017, just 16 percent of U.S. civilian workers had access to paid family leave, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The "sandwich generation" -- a term for people generally in their 30s and 40s who are caring for both young children and their aging baby boomer parents -- is one of the reasons General Mills is adding the caregiving policy, Williams-Rolls said.

"Families have been a part of the fabric of our company from the beginning," she said. These improved benefits, which also include expanded bereavement and short-term disability leave, better reflect that value.

Shabo of the National Partnership said companies are starting to see the business liability in not expanding parental leave policies for both women and men.

"Part of it is the financial reality that women are key breadwinners in two-thirds of families, and primary breadwinners -- meaning they bring in equal or more than their partners -- in about 40 percent of families," Shabo said.

"Both women and men are wanting to be more engaged at the beginning of their kids' lives," she added. When companies differentiate between a "primary" and "secondary" parent, it could lay the foundation for sex discrimination lawsuits.

Debra Fitzpatrick, co-director of the Center on Women, Gender and Public Policy at the University of Minnesota, applauds General Mills for its expanded paid family leave policies.

"It's really important we acknowledge the companies doing the right thing," Fitzpatrick said. "As we think about why big companies are doing this -- to attract talent and workers -- it should provide the same basis for why the state should do something as we face a worker shortage."

The federal Family and Medical Leave Act gives parents of newborns 12 weeks of unpaid family leave. But several states have recently passed laws providing paid family leave that uses a state payroll tax pool. Fitzpatrick believes its important to highlight companies like General Mills, but recognizing it only goes so far.

General Mills' expanded benefits are only for salaried, nonunion U.S. workers.

"Those who can least afford to be able to take unpaid time are also the least likely to have paid time off," Fitzpatrick said. "We look to these companies as models, but it's really important that we recognize low-income babies need care just as much as high-income babies need care."

Eighty-two percent of Americans believe mothers should receive paid time off while 69 percent believe new fathers should as well. About 67 percent say workers should get paid time off to take care of a sick family member, according to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center. There's a growing consensus in America around the need to improve paid family leave, but less consensus on how to do this, Fitzpatrick said.

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