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The whole package

Nov 02, 2020 | Jenny Price


There may never be a more critical time in history for companies to provide benefits that allow women to keep working.

Woman working from home

On any given weekday morning, it’s common for Gina Peyer’s two-year-old daughter and four-year-old son to join her at her desk in her home office during video calls with her team.

“Sometimes they just need to sit right by you—and that’s what they’ll do. Everybody has to say hi and laugh. And my kids have to say hi,” says Peyer, a senior client associate with RBC Wealth Management-U.S. in Stillwater, Minn. “People are understanding, and they get a kick out of it.”

For Peyer, RBC provided the timely benefits she needed in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic—including $300 to help set up her home office and emergency childcare leave when her daycare center closed. It’s exactly what she expected from the company where she started as a college intern. During her nearly 15 years there, Peyer has relied on the benefits available to her as a working mom to survive and thrive as a professional. And in recent months, RBC has built on that strong foundation to offer employees additional support as they adjust to working from home and managing their responsibilities as parents and caregivers.

“We need to give our employees the space and the resources to prioritize as they need to, not tell them what their priorities are,” says Shareen Luze, head of HR at RBC Wealth Management-U.S. “If anything has become more clear during this pandemic, it’s that human-centered companies and human-centered managers and leaders are the ones that are going to successfully usher their companies and their teams through this.”

There may never be a more critical time in history for companies to provide benefits that allow women to keep working. The United States could be facing a “generational wipeout of mothers’ careers,” according to a recent New York Times report citing research that shows parents who interrupt their careers earn less when they return to the workforce, and those effects also reduce their retirement savings and Social Security benefits.

Luze says providing a strong benefits package isn’t just important for attracting new employees—it sends a critical message to existing ones. “Recruiting shouldn’t stop when you walk in RBC’s doors,” she says. “We should be recruiting our own employees every single day.”

Making Travel Less Stressful for New Mothers

When Luze returned to work as a nursing mother after her youngest child was born, she jumped back into the cross-country travel her job required. “It didn’t go well,” Luze recalls. On one trip, she stood aghast in airport security and watched as TSA agents tested— and contaminated—the milk she had pumped in hotels and public bathrooms and stowed safely in various freezers along the way.

“I’d done so much to protect this liquid gold, and I ended up having to throw it away,” Luze says. “I was stuck with two options: stop nursing, even though it was a commitment that I had made, or stop traveling, because it was that inconvenient.”

Luze didn’t want other women to face that difficult choice.

RBC now covers the full cost of Milk Stork, a service that provides women pre-labeled and postage-paid cooler kits to safely ship or carry breast milk home from domestic or international destinations. RBC employees traveling in the United States can schedule a cooler kit delivery to their destination hotel, and Milk Stork offers moms who travel internationally the supplies needed to check breast milk as luggage when returning home.

When Peyer’s four-year-old son Garrett was a baby, she had a convenient place to pump and store milk at her RBC office, but things were more unpredictable when she traveled. Peyer stored her pumped breast milk in a cooler where colleagues also kept their beverages while they were on the road. She constantly worried about whether there was enough ice to keep it cold and whether the milk storage bags would break.

Peyer’s experience was completely different when she used Milk Stork for the first time on a work trip to South Dakota when her daughter, Adalynn, was still nursing. A delivery person picked up her milk within an hour of her dropping it off at the hotel’s front desk. “It ended up right at my doorstep with my husband,” Peyer says. “It was freezing cold, frozen breast milk. It was great.”

As president of RBC Wealth Management’s Women’s Association of Financial Advisors (WAFA), an employee resource group that supports the recruitment and retention of female financial advisors and branch directors, Jeri Larrinaga says that one of the most important changes over the last several years is that benefits are extended across the entire company to every branch, not just at the corporate level.

Larrinaga is a financial advisor who started with RBC in 1996 in a staff support role. She recalls a time early in her career when she sought a $500 tuition reimbursement to help cover the costs of a weekend program to complete her degree. She was disappointed to learn she did not qualify for reimbursement then, but is happy to say that, thanks to the leadership in place today, those in a similar situation would receive the tuition reimbursement.

“You do feel like this is an organization that cares about every employee. You might be in one specific zip code, but the entire enterprise truly cares about you,” she says. “And these benefits are available to everyone, regardless.”

Larrinaga says that she always enjoyed flexibility with her schedule. “I never missed an event with one of my children, not one,” she says. “No matter what it was.” But over time she’s witnessed how major changes in the benefits and flexibility offered by RBC have made a huge difference for women in the workplace.

Larrinaga’s children are fully grown, but she’s effusive about how the Milk Stork program would have made a difference for her as a single mother earlier in her career. “Oh my god—game changer,” she says. And as she looks to the future, she anticipates the possibility of using RBC’s caregiver leave benefits to help care for her aging mother.

“You are embraced and supported for who you are at different points in your life,” Larrinaga says.

And Larrinaga says that if she were at the start of her career now, she would choose the same path. “There would be nothing stopping me from working for this company.”

Maternity Leave That Makes Financial Sense

RBC removed another major obstacle for female financial advisors with children: how it calculates pay for commission-based employees who take a leave of absence, including maternity leave. Larrinaga recalls that when she first started nearly 25 years ago, there was no such calculation in place. “You just basically didn’t go on maternity leave,” she says.

Two years ago, while Luze was attending her first WAFA event as HR director, she heard strong feedback from female financial advisors who shared concerns about being able to maintain their earnings while on leave.

“We started to look at leave benefits immediately after that event,” Luze says. “We began working out how we could make changes to our programs to ensure women did not feel like they had to choose whether they were going to take maternity leave and lose out on pay, or sacrifice time with their child to keep earning. We don’t want an advisor to feel like they can’t take the time off that they need and deserve because of financial limitations.”

Today, the maximum amount of pay advisors can earn while on leave has been doubled to better reflect their current earnings. The company offers at least 11 weeks of paid maternity leave to birth mothers, and employees can also take additional paid and unpaid leaves when they need extended time away from work, including parental and caregiver leave, family and medical leave, personal leave, short- and long-term disability leave, bereavement leave, and military leave.

Larrinaga credits RBC leadership for listening to employees and taking steps to solve the problem. “RBC has done a phenomenal job of caring about their people and making it a priority to figure out and understand what was broken in the eyes of the female financial advisor,” she says.

Smart Benefits That Recognize Reality

When Luze took on her new role as HR director, the company already had a generous paid time off policy, along with short-term and long-term disability leave and parental leave. But Luze knew there were plenty of circumstances where employees needed more. “What we didn’t have was that gap coverage, to cover individuals who need to care for an injured or ill child, family member or parent,” Luze says. 

Luze recounts the story of a junior–level employee in one of RBC’s branches whose husband was injured in an accident. “She has PTO, but she’s going to exhaust that long before she’ll be ready to come back. So how do we support that employee?”

Today, RBC offers up to four weeks of paid time off for employees who need to care for an immediate family member. “We’re recognizing and acknowledging that this isn’t a world of one-income families, where you have the sole breadwinner at the office and somebody else taking care of all of those other aspects of family life,” Luze says. “That’s not the reality for most of our employees.”

Last year, RBC expanded its footprint for back-up childcare to ensure the benefit is available to all U.S. employees. Employees can also make use of an in-home back-up care option for children, including those who are mildly ill. That means parents have more options when schools close for a snow day, spring break, or their regular daycare closes for some other reason.

And motivated by the growing number of employees with children who reported assisting older family members, part of the so-called “sandwich generation,” RBC extended its in-home back-up care benefit to include caring for adults. “We have a whole roster of certified eldercare providers who can assist with home chores, driving responsibilities and just taking care of elderly parents or family members,” Luze says.

Benefits in the Time of COVID-19

RBC took another look at its employee benefits once the closures and pressures of the pandemic descended on its workforce, with a focus on expanding support. “It was easy to say, ‘Okay, here’s what we’re going to layer in,’” Luze says.

When its offices closed in March due to COVID-19, RBC implemented pay continuation for employees who could not work full time from home—whether due to childcare needs or having jobs that couldn’t be performed remotely. The company also made the commitment that there would be no job losses this year connected to the pandemic. “So many people around them were losing their jobs that they were worried they would lose theirs as well, particularly those who were not able to work full time or couldn't do their jobs remotely,” Luze says.

When schools started closing, RBC initially offered 10 days of emergency childcare leave—10 days of paid time off, which it later increased to 20 days.

Ali Quinn tapped into that new benefit when both schools and her office in Stillwater, Minn., closed in the spring. She used two days to be with her sons, ages 9 and 5, while her home office was being set up for remote access. She was grateful for having one less thing to worry about.

“Having these kinds of benefits really helps relieve the stress that, if the kids are home, I don't have to worry about work,” says Quinn, a senior registered client associate.

Quinn had just taken five days off the week prior to cover spring break for her older son. Then his school shut down the following week due to COVID-19. The emergency leave allowed her to preserve the paid time off she relies on as a working mom. “Most years—just because of the age of my kids—by the end of the year you start to run out of PTO days, just with sicknesses and days that you have to take off because school’s out,” says Quinn, who joined RBC in 2009. “With the uncertainty of the time, having that extra 10 days was really helpful.”

Quinn believes RBC’s approach to the pandemic, including announcing the additional benefits early on, relieved a lot of pressure and sent a key message: “They’re going to take care of people.”

“Through all of this, RBC has done what they can to put employees first and to give us the flexibility to deal with the home life aspects of this pandemic as well as the work,” says Quinn. And that has made a difference for parents as they face additional school closures and continue to balance work and virtual learning.

Critical branch staff received an extra $50 in compensation each day they came into the office through June to cover transportation and meal costs. And RBC also decided to cover 100 percent of the costs of virtual doctor visits and introduced a new program to provide mental health support. The new program supplemented existing wellness and employee support programs and gave all employees and their family members, regardless of whether they participate in benefits, access to confidential support for anxiety, depression, stress, and other mental health issues via phone, text or email. “We were hearing from employees that they’re anxious, they’re stressed,” Luze says.

Luze says more women than men are taking advantage of the extra benefits being offered because COVID-19 has exacerbated existing disparities. “Women—no matter how you slice it—are disproportionately responsible for childcare, eldercare, and home responsibilities,” she says. “And now all of those worlds are crashing.”

In the months since implementing the new policies, Luze and her team have conducted a series of short surveys to get employee feedback. She reads all of the comments and feels the firm is on the right track based on the significant number of people who respond with how proud they are to work for RBC and who say, “nobody else is doing anything like that.”

Peyer says the company’s approach to the pandemic has reinforced the loyalty first formed during her days as a college intern. “I fell in love with the firm from that moment for the way that they treat their employees and the way that they help you grow and develop as a person and as a colleague.”


Values in action