Paid parental leave, pantsuits for women, colored shirts for men — those changes are coming for Mormon church employees

In a move that aligns with many U.S. businesses, the LDS Church will now offer its employees family-friendly and wellness benefits.

The Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — the largest employer in the Beehive State — also is providing short-term disability benefits and has loosened its dress code to include colored shirts for men and dress pants for women.

These changes were announced Wednesday in an internal memo from Mormon officials to thousands of full-time employees at LDS Church headquarters in downtown Salt Lake City, its four church-owned colleges (Brigham Young University, BYU-Idaho, BYU-Hawaii and LDS Business College) and to paid professionals with the Church Educational System.

Going forward, full-time, benefited employees who give birth "will be eligible for six weeks of paid medical maternity leave to recover from childbirth," the policy memo reads.

At the same time, full-time, benefited employees also can take one week of "paid parental leave," the church document says, "to bond with their new children from birth or adoption." For mothers who give birth, this means an additional week of leave.

Until 2014, an LDS woman who gave birth — or had a child under age 18 — was not allowed to teach full-time seminary classes in high schools or Institutes of Religion at colleges.

The change made it possible "for families to decide what best meets their needs as it relates to mothers working while raising children," Mormon officials said at the time. "This policy is consistent with other church departments."

Now, mothers not only can keep their jobs, but also take a maternity leave and return to them — even with a newborn.

Starting in late December, employees who have been ill, injured or otherwise disabled for seven days can receive two-thirds of their salary for up to 45 days.

The plan, the memo says, should offer "peace of mind."

The church also is launching a wellness plan that will include education, counseling and convenient access to exercise facilities.

A wellness center on the seventh floor of the towering LDS Church Office Building on North Temple currently is under construction, with plans to open in October. It will include cardio and weightlifting equipment, group fitness studios, exercise classes, showers, healthy vending options and on-site coaches.

As to the dress-code changes, headquarters will now allow women to don professional pantsuits as well as skirts and dresses, and men may wear light-colored shirts with ties, and remove their jackets when weather is hot or for "movement through the building."

In May 2011, the male-dominated church made a similar nod to the discomforts of weather, when it eliminated the pantyhose requirement for female employees at headquarters, allowing them to go barelegged.

LDS Church workers welcomed Wednesday news.

"The new policy represents a significant step toward bringing our practices into greater alignment with our values," said one employee, who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak.

As he was making plans recently for the upcoming birth of his child, the employee worried he would have to use almost all of his sick leave and vacation time to spend as much time as possible at home with his wife and newborn.

"This new policy makes that unnecessary," he.

The previous policy "emphasized the value of baby-bonding time," he said, "but provided no support beyond the standard paid time off."

For most of the 20th century, few businesses or states provided maternity leave to women.

There was not any sort of "federally mandated policy requiring employers to provide unpaid maternity leave in America, much less paid maternity leave or paid parental leave for both fathers and mothers," said historian Christopher Jones, who will be teaching at BYU in the fall. "Prior to that, only 12 states (plus Washington, D.C.) mandated any sort of maternity leave coverage."

Benefits were "left up to employers," Jones said, "and most didn't offer maternity leave coverage, with only 40 percent of female employees having access to such coverage."

That all changed in 1993, with adoption of the Family Medical Leave Act. The law required employers to provide, among other benefits, women and men with 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave per year — and the LDS Church complied.

Since then, many companies have offered paid leaves.

Mormon apostle Quentin L. Cook offered this explanation for the newly expanded policy.

"I would hope that Latter-day Saints would be at the forefront in creating an environment in the workplace that is more receptive and accommodating," he said in a statement, "to both men and women."