Parenting

Pregnancy in the Workplace: Know Your Rights

working mom

There's no shortage of advice for moms-to-be about nutrition, morning sickness, best strollers, pregnancy milestones ... even the hottest sex positions are readily discussed. What’s not addressed much during such a joyous time is the impact pregnancy and motherhood can have on your job.  

Phoebe Taubman is trying to change that. She's one of three authors behind the book Babygate: What You Really Need to Know About Pregnancy and Parenting in the American Workplace -- in which three legal experts share practical tips, real-life stories from parents, and legal information to highlight the protections families do and don’t have in the workplace. Taubman wrote the book to help moms. But she also did it to make people angry. Really angry.

The Stir spoke with her about what moms need to know about parenting on the job ... and why she wants to "incite rage" in moms.

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What was the inspiration behind Babygate?
I work with my co-authors of Babygate, Dina Bakst and Elizabeth Gedmark, at A Better Balance. Our organization is devoted to promoting equality and expanding choices for families at all income levels so they may care for their loved ones without sacrificing their economic security. We launched a hotline four years ago to field calls from people who are confused about what legal protections they have at work regarding pregnancy, the Family Medical Leave Act, and discrimination. We’ve spent a great deal of time answering phone calls, and the majority of questions -- about 60 or 70 percent -- are pregnancy related. We saw a clear need to create a central resource on what to expect in the workplace in terms of holding onto your job during pregnancy and after baby.

Do parents underestimate how important it is to know their rights before they consider having a family?
It’s important for parents to understand what the law does (and does not) provide, to consider the impact a child will have on your family dynamic. You need to think through how you’re going to balance caregiving in advance, especially in dual-income families. Having these discussions will mitigate some of the social sex-role expectations that families fall into without realizing it. There’s a society-wide penalty against caregiving. For example, some men are entitled to paid time off after having a child. Many don’t take the leave because of the social stigma that still exists today, the feeling that caregiving is a woman’s work. Men missing out on time with their families only perpetuates inequality for women. We have a lot of work to do to change perceptions.

babygateWhat are parents most surprised about regarding their childbirth and post-pregnancy rights?
Our federal system is designed so that states have the authority to implement laws and policies that are more generous than those passed by Congress. One of the most shocking things is the disparity of benefits. It all depends on where you live and work. For example, New Jersey has an excellent family leave insurance law that provides job protection and compensation to pay the bills while you bond with your baby ... Many New Jersey residents commute to New York City for work and think they are protected by family leave insurance law, and unfortunately, that’s not the case. They aren’t entitled to those benefits because their employer is based in New York City. Understanding that distinction during the family planning phase makes a huge difference.

Do you have any advice for working moms to protect their jobs during pregnancy? What about asking for flexible working hours post-pregnancy?
Yes. Do the best job you can and make yourself valuable to your employer before you get pregnant. A solid reputation will often promote good will. Babygate and A Better Balance have resources to help you make the best business case for maternity leave and a flexible schedule. The foundation for successful negotiation is doing your homework.

More from The Stir: Being Pregnant at Work Just Got a Whole Lot Easier

How does the US fare compared to other countries when it comes to paid maternity leave?
The US is a global outlier when it comes to family care. We are actually worse than many underdeveloped countries. According to a recent report by the UN International Labor Organization, the US stands alone with Papua New Guinea in providing no paid leave for maternity. Laws in other countries comparable to the US are far more supportive in terms of balancing work and family life. Take Canada, for example. Paid, job-protected maternity leave is 15 weeks. Employees then receive an additional 17 weeks of unpaid leave to split between the parents of the child. In the US, you’re entitled to 12 weeks of unpaid leave -- if you qualify for FMLA. Only about 60 percent of our workforce qualifies for FMLA because the standards are high (you must work for an employer of a certain size, have been employed for 12 months prior to taking leave, and put in at least 1,250 hours). Even if you are eligible for FMLA, you may not be able to afford it. 

Women who work part-time jobs (sometimes even two or three to make ends meet) are not entitled to FMLA, so they often have their babies and return to work long before they’re physically or mentally ready. We can do better than that.

What can working moms do to support the movement toward a better work/life balance?
We wrote this book not only as a resource, but also to incite rage. We must create a culture shift to get pro-family employment policies in place. In order to do that, we need to educate the public on the real economic ramifications of not addressing family issues.

Families suffer when women are pushed out of work and can't earn a fair wage because they are mothers. More broadly, by not supporting women's dual roles as caregivers and wage earners, we are losing out on women's workforce contributions and falling behind some of our international competitors as a result. Recent studies have even shown some young people are planning not to have children at all, because they can't see a way to manage a family with their career aspirations. That spells trouble for our future. We have to inspire parents and other like-minded citizens to demand change from their elected officials.

Parents are overwhelmed and busy people. But we have to find the time to unite and do something about these issues.

Did you consider the impact pregnancy would have on your job? Are you familiar with your rights in the workplace as a working mom?


Images © iStock.com/James Tutor; Feminist Press

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