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Posts Tagged ‘maternity leave’

The Real War on Families: Why the U.S. Needs Paid Leave Now

Wednesday, August 19th, 2015

sharon-lernerInvestigation reveals the devastating effects of the lack of paid family leave: Our data show nearly 1 in 4 employed mothers return to work within two weeks of childbirth.

Leigh Benrahou began laying plans to have a second child almost as soon as she had her first, a daughter named Johara, in 2011. Benrahou, 32, wanted to time the next birth so that when she returned to work, her mother, who works at an elementary school and has summers off, could babysit. Most importantly, Benrahou wanted to spend as much time as she could with her new baby while also keeping her relatively new job as the registrar at a small college.

While her husband, Rachid, 38, earns enough at a carpet cleaning company to cover their mortgage and food, without her paycheck they’d be forced to live close to the bone. And if she quit her job, Benrahou, who has a masters in nonprofit management, would take a big step backward in what she hoped would be a long career in higher education.

So Benrahou, who has wavy dark blond hair, blue eyes and a tendency to smile even through difficult moments, set about what may be the least romantic aspect of family planning in the United States: figuring out how to maximize time with a newborn while staying solvent, employed and, ideally, sane.

Only in America

Most people are aware that Americans have a raw deal when it comes to maternity leave. Perhaps they’ve heard about Sweden, with its drool-inducing 16 months of paid parental leave, or Finland, where, after about 9 months of paid leave, the mother or father can take—or split—additional paid “child care leave” until the child’s third birthday.

But most Americans don’t realize quite how out of step we are. It’s not just wealthy, social democratic Nordic countries that make us look bad. With the exception of a few small countries like Papua New Guinea and Suriname, every other nation in the world—rich or poor—now requires paid maternity leave.

Paid parental leave frees mothers and fathers from choosing between their careers and time with their infants. For women, still most often the primary caregivers of young children, this results in higher employment rates, which in turn translates to lower poverty rates among mothers and their children.

Research shows that paid leave can also be a matter of life and death for children. By charting the correlation between death rates and paid leave in 16 European countries, Christopher Ruhm, a professor of public policy and economics at the University of Virginia, found that a 50-week extension in paid leave was associated with a 20 percent dip in infant deaths. (The biggest drop was in deaths of babies between 1 month and 1 year old, though mortality of children between 1 and 5 years also decreased as paid leave went up.)

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only about 13 percent of U.S. workers have access to any form of paid family leave, which includes parental leave and other time off to care for a family member. The highest-paid workers are most likely to have it, according to BLS numbers, with more than 1 in 5 of the top 10 percent of earners getting paid family leave, compared to 1 in 20 in the bottom quartile. Unionized workers are more likely to get benefits than nonunionized workers.

What do the rest of American women do without a law that guarantees this basic support? Some new mothers who don’t get paid leave quit their jobs, which can leave them desperate for income and have serious consequences in terms of work opportunities and lifetime earnings. Others may choose not to have children (though it’s impossible to definitively quantify how the difficulty of integrating work and childbirth factors into those decisions). And some try to stitch together their own paid leaves through accumulated vacation time and personal days, or through independently purchased insurance policies.

The best-laid plans

Though her employer doesn’t offer paid leave, Benrahou figured she’d create her own, taking time away from work through the Family and Medical Leave Act, which entitles new parents to up to 12 weeks off, unpaid. She knew all about the law’s loopholes—that, for instance, it only applies to workplaces that have at least 50 employees. Hers did; she wouldn’t have taken the job if it hadn’t. She knew, too, that she had to have worked for her employer for at least 12 months to qualify. That part was trickier.

She had started her job in February 2014, which meant that she wouldn’t qualify until the following February. She counted back nine months from then and got to May, but then, to be safe, tacked on another two months in case the baby came early, so: July. That’s when she and Rachid would start trying for a second.

Then there was money. Reluctant to lose 12 weeks of income, Benrahou decided to opt into her employer’s disability insurance policy, paying roughly $40 a month into the plan so she could receive 60 percent of her salary for up to six weeks of her maternity leave, plus an additional $1,000 toward the cost of her hospital stay. She would also save up her two weeks of annual paid vacation time.

Numbers crunched and policy purchased, Benrahou went off birth control on schedule in July and became pregnant within a month. But her carefully laid plans started to go awry in her 20th week, when she was diagnosed with placenta previa, which can result in early delivery. Despite some bleeding and cramping, and several brief hospital stays that used up her sick days, Benrahou stuck to her plan, working as much as possible after her diagnosis in order to save her precious vacation time. But, in late December, her water broke. Though her due date was April 1, Leigh Benrahou gave birth by C-section on Christmas Eve—too soon to qualify for FMLA leave or any payoff from her disability insurance.

Ramzi Benrahou was born at 26 weeks and just over 2 pounds. Knowing that 20 percent of babies born at his gestational age don’t survive, Leigh spent the first hours after the delivery singularly focused on her tiny son’s survival. He needed oxygen, since his lungs weren’t fully developed. And, when he was whisked away for medical attention, Benrahou had to attend to another crisis: She was the mother of a very sick baby, and her carefully constructed paid maternity leave had disintegrated. So, freshly stitched up and still groggy from anesthesia, she spread out her medical fact sheets, insurance policy papers and lists of phone numbers on her hospital bed and began to grapple with her new reality. Though her college was on winter break, which put off her return by about a week, Benrahou realized she’d have to go back to work when classes resumed on January 6, less than two weeks after giving birth.

Less than a month

Like Benrahou, most U.S. women end up returning to work sooner than they’d like—sometimes just weeks or days after having a baby. Just how soon they’re going back is difficult to determine. We know that most employers don’t offer paid leave, but no federal agency collects regular statistics on how much post-childbirth time off, paid or unpaid, women are actually taking.

Census data on employment patterns among first-time mothers show that between 2005 and 2007, more than half who worked during their pregnancy were back on the job within three months of giving birth. A 2008 study by the Department of Health and Human Services’ Maternal and Child Health Bureau, meanwhile, found that the average length of maternity leave, when taken, was 10 weeks. But more recent data is scarce, even though the recession left many women living on razorthin margins, ratcheting up the pressure to rush back to work after giving birth.

How are new mothers faring in today’s age of austerity? Data analyzed for In These Times by Abt Associates, a research and evaluation company, provides a window into these experiences. Abt went back to a 2012 survey it conducted for the Department of Labor of 2,852 employees who had taken family or medical leave in the last year, looking specifically at the 93 women who took time off work to care for a new baby.

Nearly 12 percent of those women took off only a week or less. Another 11 percent took between one and two weeks off. That means that about 23 percent—nearly 1 in 4—of the women interviewed were back at work within two weeks of having a child.

The educational divide between those who took shorter and relatively longer leaves is striking: 80 percent of college graduates took at least six weeks off to care for a new baby, but only 54 percent of women without college degrees did so.

Pumping in the parking lot

What’s it like to be back on the job in the first weeks after having a baby?

For Natasha Long, who was back three weeks after her third child, Jayden, was born in 2012, the worst part was missing out on bonding time with her son.

Long, who was 29 at the time, was determined to make sure Jayden got breast milk. But the factory where she worked, ACCO Office Supplies in Booneville, Mississippi, didn’t have a lactation room. So when she was on breaks, she had to run out to her truck. She sat in the cab, worried that someone might see her, and pumped, while tears rolled down her face and over the plastic suction cups attached to her breasts.

Long cried because she wanted to be holding her baby rather than sitting in the parking lot of a factory in her old Yukon Denali. But exhaustion clearly also played a role in her emotional state. Her job was simple—to place stickers with the company logo on the bottom right-hand corner of plastic binders and then box up the binders. But the shifts were long—from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.—and she put in four or five a week. Because the factory was an hour’s drive from her home in Okalona, Mississippi, Long had only 10 hours left in the day to do everything else, including tend to her three children, spend time with Jayden’s father, and sleep. By the time she got back in the evening, her children, who were being looked after by her father during the day, were on their way to bed. To pump breast milk before leaving for work, she had to get up at 4 a.m.

After just a few days of this crazed schedule, Long began to develop strange symptoms, including a headache that never seemed to go away and a choking sensation that left her feeling breathless. She started biting her fingernails to the quick—something she’d never done before—and crying a lot. “I felt like I was alone,” says Long. “I wanted to fall off the face of the earth.” Long had never been depressed. But when she went to the doctor, he surmised that her physical symptoms were rooted in her mental state, which was itself rooted in her schedule. When her doctor said he thought she was depressed, Long worried that if child welfare authorities found out, they might take her children away. She had seen other people’s children put in foster care. But when her doctor prescribed her antidepressants, she took them.

Long is not the only one to suffer emotionally from a quick return to work. Research has shown that longer maternity leaves, whether paid or unpaid, are associated with a decline in depressive symptoms, a reduction in the likelihood of severe depression, and an improvement in overall maternal health, according to a working paper issued by the National Bureau of Economic Research. One national study of 1,762 mothers found that a one-week increase in maternity leave was associated with a 5 to 6 percent reduction in depressive symptoms from six to 24 months after birth. Another found that women who took less than eight weeks of paid leave experienced more depression than those who had longer leaves and were in worse health overall. Mothers who work more than 40 hours a week, as Long was, were more likely to be depressed than those who worked 40 hours or less, according to a study by Child Trends, a research center.

Women who go back sooner also tend to breastfeed less, which cuts into the benefits breast milk confers, including better immunity and lower rates of childhood obesity, allergies and sudden infant death syndrome. It was only through heroic efforts that Long was able to breastfeed Jayden until he was 1.

Shorter maternity leaves may also have a negative effect on the development of early motor and social skills and even, later, on vocabulary, according to several studies. So far, Jayden, 3, hasn’t shown signs of missing any developmental milestones. What nags at Long is the thought that her absence in those first few months might have affected their relationship. He refuses to call her “mama,” and although there’s no research to indicate this would be a result of failed early bonding, she still fears that’s the reason.

Too busy to fight

For low-income women, the lack of paid maternity leave is just one of many missing supports to help them stay afloat while bringing new life into the world. By the time Jayden was born, pregnancy had already put Long in a perilous financial situation. She was on bed rest for the last four and a half months of her pregnancy. Big Dollar, where she worked at the time, didn’t fire her for not coming in—but it didn’t pay her, either. So Long filed for public assistance, which required her to attend classes. Though Mississippi is supposed to exempt people who are physically unable to take such classes, and Long’s doctor had warned her to stay off her feet, she says she was denied benefits when she didn’t attend.

Family members pitched in to pay for her groceries and rent while she was unable to work, but by the time Jayden was born (healthy, at 37 weeks), Long knew she had reached the limit of their generosity. When she went back to work at the dollar store, they offered her only reduced hours. It wasn’t enough to repay her debts, so she went to an employment agency, made no mention of her days-old baby, and got her job at ACCO.

Other social supports are glaringly absent for U.S. mothers, especially poor ones, who fill waiting lists for scarce subsidized childcare spots and underfunded early education classes. In comparison, Sweden and Denmark spend roughly 10 times what we do on childcare per person.

Without adequate options or support, low-income workers, who are more likely to live paycheck to paycheck and less likely to have access to any type of leave, often have little choice but to power through. As our data confirm—and as finances dictate—less educated women, who tend to have lower-paying jobs, are likely to take less time off after having children. Often, that means not just going back to work early, but going back to very long work hours, very early.

Raven Osborne, for instance, a 22-year-old single mother in Tupelo, Mississippi, went back to work just one week after her first child, Kylan, now 2, was born in August 2013. In addition to being a full-time college student, Osborne was waitressing full-time at IHOP, but her earnings—tips plus a base salary of $2.13 an hour—weren’t enough to cover her rent, car payments and daycare costs. Perhaps ironically, her tips were much higher—sometimes more than $100 a shift—when she was visibly pregnant. But once she had the child, they went down again, so Osborne added a few overnight shifts at Texaco when Kylan was four weeks old, leaving the baby with his grandmother. Working upwards of 60 hours each week, the new mother barely saw her son, except when she got home from work, when she often fell asleep holding him. She could have taken unpaid leave from IHOP but chose not to because she needed the pay.

This winter, Osborne returned to work four weeks after her second child, Anthony, was born. Now she’s working full-time at a debt collection agency on top of several shifts at the nearby Coles supermarket.

“I don’t like asking for help” is how Osborne explains the frantic pace she’s kept up during her first year-and-a-half of motherhood. Her mother pitches in by watching the kids when she can, though she, too, has two full-time jobs—one at Walmart and another as an aide at a retirement community.

Clearly, women with low earnings are the least likely to have a financial cushion that allows them to forgo a paycheck. But it’s not only those on the bottom of the pay scale who can’t afford to take unpaid leave. More than 2.5 million employees need time off from work to care for themselves or another but can’t afford to take it, according to a 2012 study from the Center for Economic and Policy Research.

Tracy Malloy-Curtis, a fundraiser at a nonprofit in New York City, could have taken more time off, unpaid but with job security, after she had a baby a few years back. (“It’s a civil rights organization,” she explains, though she doesn’t want to name it because she still works in the field.) Instead, Malloy-Curtis, who is 43, married, and the primary breadwinner in her family, went back five and a half weeks after having a son—and a complicated C-section—for fear she otherwise could not afford to pay her mortgage and cover the other basic costs of her life.

“Physically, I was a wreck,” she says. An infection around her C-section wound hadn’t yet healed when she went back to work. “I was still bleeding, my incision wasn’t closed.” Pus dripped down her leg under her work clothes.

Those who do take leave may find themselves penalized afterward. Jackie Wheeler took six weeks of paid maternity leave after her son, Enzo, was born in 2011. Wheeler, who lives in Westminster, Colo., was working at the front desk of a local branch of Chase Bank. Though her son had severe medical problems as a result of being born early, Wheeler had intended to go back to her job. Before giving birth, she says, she had even been talking with her boss about interviewing for an assistant manager position. “I saw myself as moving along in the company,” she says.

But after she returned to work and Enzo was released from the hospital, she took another six weeks of leave. At that point, her boss told her he thought it was best that she resign—if he didn’t fill her position right away, he said, corporate headquarters would eliminate it. And Wheeler was too overwhelmed at the time to challenge him.

The birth of hope

While, in the United States, the lack of time off can too often turn new motherhood into a distressing ordeal, most other cultures treat this immediate post-natal period as a sacred time, when both the new mother and baby receive help and special attention. Throughout history and all over the world, people have tended to carve out a minimum of at least six weeks in which women are exempt from responsibilities other than child care, according to Malin Eberhard-Gran, a Norwegian public health scholar who has compiled a cross-cultural comparison of post-natal practices.

In some Muslim traditions, new mothers spend the first 40 days after birth in their mothers’ homes, for instance. Many Latin American cultures also bracket during the same period, known as la cuarantena (from the Spanish word for “forty”), and exempt women from work responsibilities. In some other countries, women are granted special treatment for even longer. Traditionally, women in Japan and India go to their mothers’ homes for several months after giving birth. And today, by law, the 30 countries in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)—democracies with market economies—provide an average of more than a year of paid leave.

Here in the United States, advocates have been fighting for a century to get new parents just a few weeks off with pay. But the tide may be turning. In 2002, California became the first state to pass a paid family leave law, which provides workers who need to care for a new baby with 55 percent of their usual weekly pay, to a limit of $1,104 for up to six weeks. New Jersey passed a similar law in 2008. And in 2013, Rhode Island granted workers up to four weeks off with pay for “family care,” including care of a new baby. Despite dire warnings from business interests, most employers in New Jersey and California (where programs have been in effect long enough to be studied) haven’t found that paid leave has hurt productivity, profitability or turnover. (Full disclosure: I was a co-author of the New Jersey study).

The Obama administration is attempting to build momentum for paid sick leave, one of the main ways women piece together paid maternity leave. In the 2015 State of the Union address, President Obama called on Congress to send him a bill guaranteeing U.S. workers seven days of paid sick leave—but in early August, Senate Republicans blocked a Democrat-sponsored bill to do so. In the meantime, Obama has an executive order in the works that will extend a week of paid sick leave to all federal contractors, and his adminstration has issued $1.25 million in grants to study how paid leave programs can be developed in states. Labor Secretary Tom Perez, who has been outspoken on the issue, has spearheaded a #leadonleave campaign, in which he and White House aide Valerie Jarrett travel the country to boost local paid leave policies.

But, so far, even a Democratic administration committed to the issue hasn’t been enough to overcome resistance to it. When bills have been debated in states, Republicans have been so vehement that paid leave is bad for business and a “job killer” that legislation at a federal level has been assumed to be a no-go. And, at least until very recently, congressional Republicans have mostly scoffed at Democratic efforts. But for the first time, a bill proposed by Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) this spring that would provide benefits for workers who take time off to care for a new baby or sick family member was met with a counterproposal from Republicans, which would allow hourly workers to put overtime toward paid leave.

The issue is also clearly gaining ground in certain states, where at least ten family leave proposals have been introduced since March. Though Republican presidential candidates have had little to say about the issue, Democratic contenders Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have both come out as strong proponents of paid leave. While Sanders has been more specific about his plan, calling for 12 weeks off, with pay, both are making a moral case to which there is no politically sound retort: Families need paid time off to take care of their new babies. Men, women and children will gain from this basic human dignity.

Barreling ahead

After three months, Leigh Benrahou only has a blurry recollection of her first weeks back at work just days after her premature son was born. “I remember walking really slow and wearing stretch pants and just making it happen,” she says hazily. She spent those early days cutting a path between the college; the hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), where Ramzi spent four months and underwent two stomach surgeries; her 3-year-old daughter’s daycare center; and her home, where, despite her exhaustion, she found it difficult to sleep.

At work, Benrahou tended to the needs of her students, whose questions about enrollment requirements and course changes occasionally provided distraction from her own, far graver problems. But mostly it was surreal—and painful—to be there. Climbing stairs was difficult because of her recent surgery. And pretty much every time she closed the door to pump breast milk, she wound up crying. Harder still was being away from her tiny baby, whose health was still so uncertain. Every time she got a call from the hospital when she was at work—and there were many—her stomach clutched.

“They say it’s like being on a roller coaster, [having a child] in the NICU,” says Benrahou. “But a roller coaster is fun. I wanted to throw up all the time.”

Benrahou didn’t throw up, though. Instead, like so many other American women, she barreled ahead, doing her best to both take care of her newborn and remain employed. Though she never got to take leave when and how she had planned, she was recently able to take 12 weeks off through the FMLA under the category of caring for a sick relative—in this case, her infant son. And now the woman who so painstakingly planned her family’s future doesn’t know what’s ahead. Ramzi’s long-term prognosis is unclear; he’s still on oxygen and has a feeding tube. About a quarter of babies born at 26 weeks go on to have lasting disabilities.

Benrahou’s hope is to keep working. And mostly she remains upbeat. But sometimes she can’t help but wonder whether Ramzi’s early birth was preventable; and whether continuing to work after her diagnosis so she could make the best of her miniscule amount of time off brought about Ramzi’s early delivery. It certainly wasn’t the way she planned it.

This article was supported by the Leonard C. Goodman Institute for Investigative Reporting.

This blog originally appeared on InTheseTimes.com on August 18, 2015. Reprinted with permission

Sharon Lerner is an award-winning investigative journalist living in Brooklyn. She is the author of “The War on Moms: On Life in a Family-Unfriendly Nation” and covers health, the environment and other issues affecting children and families.

Carly Fiorina Thinks Corporations Should Be Able To Deny Paid Leave To New Mothers

Wednesday, August 12th, 2015

 

Bryce CovertAfter Jake Tapper, host of CNN’s State of the Union, asked Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina about Netflix’s announcement that it will offer a year of unlimited paid family leave, the former Hewlett Packard CEO said she opposes any requirement that employers offer their workers paid leave.

“I don’t think it’s the role of government to dictate to the private sector how to manage their businesses, especially when it’s pretty clear that the private sector, like Netflix…is doing the right thing because they know it helps them attract the right talent,” she said. “I’m not saying I oppose paid maternity leave. What I’m saying is I oppose the federal government mandating paid maternity leave to every company out there.”

But the vast majority of private sector employers don’t seem to agree that offering paid leave is the right thing to do. Only 12 percent of workers in the private sector get paid family leave from work. These benefits are also far more likely to be offered to higher-income, white collar workers and not to the low-income workers who may need it the most to be able to afford time off. Just 5 percent of the lowest-paid 25 percent of employees get paid family leave, compared to 21 percent of the highest 25 percent.

Fiorina noted that while she was at Hewlett Packard, the company offered paid maternity and paternity leave. Current online versions of its employee handbook only refer to “several leave opportunities to provide additional time when you need it, including [unpaid] Family and Medical (FMLA) Leave, state family leaves, [and] parental leave” without specifying how much leave employees might get. But in response to a New York Times inquiry in 2013, the company said new mothers get six weeks of full pay under a short-term disability plan with additional weeks at lower pay, while new fathers get just 10 days.

Netflix and other technology companies have made headlines for far more generous leave: Netflixannounced unlimited paid leave for the first year after the arrival of a child, while Google offersfive months and many others offer 17. But they are the exception to the norm. And without a requirement, leave policies will differ wildly from workplace to workplace.

The lack of a federal law requiring maternity and paternity leave makes the U.S. a lonely outlier on the world stage. It is one of just three countries among 185 that doesn’t guarantee new mothers paid time off, while another 70 include new fathers.

Three states have decided to enact their own policies: California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island. And the evidence from those experiments goes against Fiorina’s claim that it would be “ineffective” and “hypocritical” for government to mandate leave when it “hasn’t gotten its basic house in order.” In California, the vast majority of businesses report that the paid leave law had either a positive impact or none at all on profitability, employee performance, and productivity and it helped reduce turnover. In New Jersey, the majority of businesses also say that it hasn’t hurt their finances, while some saw similar benefits.

Paid family leave is generally found to keep women in the labor force and to expand it. The savings in turnover can come to an estimated $89 million a year for the country’s employers. But the lack of paid leave is one of the reasons that the country’s rate of women in the labor force is being far outpaced by other developed countries.

Fiorina has also come out against issues related to women’s equality in the past. She opposes the Paycheck Fairness Act, which is aimed at closing the gender wage gap, and blames the gap on unions and government bureaucracies.

“This blog originally appeared at ThinkProgress.org on August 10, 2015. Reprinted with permission.”

Bryce Covert is the Economic Policy Editor for ThinkProgress. She was previously editor of the Roosevelt Institute’s Next New Deal blog and a senior communications officer. She is also a contributor for The Nation and was previously a contributor for ForbesWoman. Her writing has appeared on The New York Times, The New York Daily News, The Nation, The Atlantic, The American Prospect, and others. She is also a board member of WAM!NYC, the New York Chapter of Women, Action & the Media.

Three Changes to Improve the Lives of Low Income and Middle Class Families

Wednesday, January 28th, 2015

olivia_headOn January 20, 2015, President Obama laid out what I think are three things that can make a difference in the lives of low income and middle class workers.

1. Child Care

There is a need now more than ever for affordable child care, especially since in many homes both parents are in the workforce. Child care is often viewed as an issue specific to women, and it is often the woman who has to choose between a pay check or caring for their sick child. President Obama called for us to stop treating this as a woman’s issue but to see it one that affects us all. President Obama proposed for more available and affordable child care. Additionally he proposed a tax cut of up to $3,000 to families for each child in child care.

Please visit http://www.workplacefairness.org/family-responsibilities-discrimination for more information.

2. Sick Leave

The United States, unlike Germany, France, Sweden and at least 145 other countries, does not guarantee paid sick leave or maternity leave to workers. President Obama proposed that we being to work with states to assist them in adopting paid leave laws, but also that we work toward creating a bill.

Please visit http://www.workplacefairness.org/sickleave for more information.

3.Higher Pay

President Obama urged for a commitment to an economy that generates rising income and provides a chance to everyone who makes an effort. Congress has yet to pass law that provides women the equal pay to men. President Obama stated that “It is time,” especially since it is 2015. Additionally, President Obama is seeking to raise the minimum wage, and challenged congressional members who were against it to live on an income of $15,000. Please visit http://www.workplacefairness.org/minimumwage for more information.

Finally, on a side note President Obama seeks to make community college $0. The benefits this will add for those in the workplace are numerous. Not only will workers be able to upgrade their skills but it will also give them the tools they need to participate in this growing economy. If we being to educate and encourage our workforce through, free education, higher pay, and affordable child care I believe we will see more growth than ever in our economy.

About the Author Olivia Nedd is a legal intern for Workplace Fairness and a student at Howard University School of Law.

Woman Says Employer Forced Her To Take Unpaid Leave While Pregnant

Tuesday, January 27th, 2015

Bryce CovertWhile Jamie Cole’s doctor was monitoring her pregnancy because she had suffered preeclampsia with a previous one, she was still healthy. Her doctor simply told her to continue working as normal, just without heavy lifting. “The only restriction I had was lifting,” she told ThinkProgress. Given that the Sava Senior Care’s Brian Center nursing home in Weaverville, North Carolina where Cole worked is a no-lift facility that uses machines to get patients out of and back into bed, plus other workers who were put on light duty for other reasons were accommodated, she assumed she could continue with her plan to work up until she delivered her baby.

But she apparently assumed wrong. “The director told me that I couldn’t work with any restrictions,” she said. “They told me that the only way they could allow me to work would be if I had my work restrictions lifted or if I just got rid of the doctor’s note… I told her I wasn’t going to do that.” But even after her doctor changed her note to say she could do lifting so long as it wasn’t more than 35 pounds, she says the directors still refused to let her work.

Her plan was to use saved up vacation and sick time to take a eight weeks paid off after the birth of her child. Instead, she says she was forced onto unpaid leave much earlier than she wanted. And if she didn’t sign the papers to go out on unpaid Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) leave, she says she was told they couldn’t promise her job would be there for her when she came back. “It scared me,” she said. “I had two kids at home and was getting ready to bring a third one in.”

“I couldn’t understand why they were doing it to me,” she said. “I needed that job. I loved my job. I was really hurt.”

All told, she spent five and a half weeks on unpaid leave. She was allowed back to work for a week even with lifting restrictions after lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union talked to the company on her behalf, which she managed with the use of the mechanical lift and help from coworkers, but then her doctor put her on full leave because she started to experience pain. “I had to drain my savings account and checking account,” she said of her unpaid leave. “It put me more behind on everything when I could have been working that five and a half weeks.”

So she’s taken legal action, filing a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) that seeks compensation for the missed wages, legal fees, and economic and emotional damages. The Sava Senior Care Brian Center Health & Rehabilitation in Weaverville did not respond to a request for comment.

She has since resigned from her job with Sava and found one at a different facility. “I was already stressed and didn’t want to put myself back into that,” she said. She says her family is starting to catch back up financially but that some of the effects linger. Her baby, who is now six months old, still sleeps in her room. “He has his own room,” she said. “But everything that I had saved up to do the baby’s room I had to put toward bills and stuff like that.” She also ended up having to return to work earlier than she wanted, making for a rough transition back.

Beyond seeking compensation, “I would like to see them change their policies,” she said. “I’m not going to be the last woman to ever work for Sava that was pregnant.”

She’s also not likely to be the last woman to go through such an experience. An estimated quarter million women have their requests for a simple accommodation so they can keep working — such as light duty, the ability to sit, or more frequent bathroom breaks — denied each year. Yet 80 percent of first-time mothers work into their last month of pregnancy.

Women are increasingly taking legal action. Complaints like Cole’s rose 65 percent between 1992 and 2007, while nearly 6,00 were filed in 2011. The Supreme Court has heard a case against the United Parcel Service from Peggy Young, who says she was denied light duty while pregnant even though it’s given to workers for other reasons. Multiple complaints have been brought against Walmart for refusing to give pregnant workers job duty changes. Home decorating store Pier 1 is being sued by a woman who says she was forced onto unpaid leave and a grocery store is being sued by a woman who says she lost her baby after she was denied light duty.

Pregnant women also face other forms of discrimination. Employers often rely on stereotypes to fire them, such as the idea that they won’t return to work after they have their babies even though nearly 60 percent go back to work within six months of giving birth. A different nursing home is being sued by a woman who says she was fired hours after she disclosed her pregnancy, while a doughnut shop is being sued by a woman who says she was unjustly fired while on maternity leave. The Department of Justice is even suing the Chicago Board of Education for firing pregnant teachers.

This article originally appeared in thinkprogress.org on January 27, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Bryce Covert is the Economic Policy Editor for ThinkProgress. She was previously editor of the Roosevelt Institute’s Next New Deal blog and a senior communications officer. She is also a contributor for The Nation and was previously a contributor for ForbesWoman. Her writing has appeared on The New York Times, The New York Daily News, The Nation, The Atlantic, The American Prospect, and others. She is also a board member of WAM!NYC, the New York Chapter of Women, Action & the Media

New Report: Working Caregivers as a Protected Class?

Tuesday, December 22nd, 2009

Finding a manageable work/life balance is something many of us struggle with a great deal–and the stakes only get higher for Americans who work full-time and have caregiving responsibilities at home. Whether that means taking care of children, a sick partner, or an elderly loved one, holding down an ambitious career while still taking good care of those that depend on you at home can be a daunting challenge.

While I’d like to be able to tell you that employers are universally understanding of their employees that struggle with juggling a full-time job while being a caregiver, we all know this simply isn’t true. As if layoffs due to our ailing economy weren’t bad enough, employers discriminating against employees based on their caregiving responsibilities is on the rise–and it has a name: Family Responsibilities Discrimination (FRD).

Before you stop reading this post because you’re thinking “such a wonky-sounding term can’t possibly affect me,” I beg you to take another few moments and keep on reading. Family Responsibilities Discrimination can occur in any number of unfortunate–but very real–workplace circumstances. Such as….

  • when a new mother is denied a promotion NOT based on her job performance, but because it is assumed she will no longer be as committed to work once baby enters the picture.
  • when a man’s employer refuses him paternity leave because “his wife should do it”
  • when a worker is fired for not meeting work goals while he is on legally protected family and medical leave to take care of a sick parent.

A new report by the Center for WorkLife Law’s Stephanie Bornstein & Robert J. Rathmell provides us with information about additional worker protections under local laws about which most people are not aware–like the ones described above. Take this true situation cited in the report, for example:

In Chicago, a single mother of two who filed a complaint for parental status discrimination under the city’s local ordinance was recently awarded over $300,000 in damages. The woman had been fired from her job as a medical services salesperson after rescheduling a meeting because her daughter was ill.

The report finds that while no federal law and only a few state laws expressly prohibit discrimination against working caregivers, at least 63 local governments in 22 states do. The findings also demonstrate that while the scope of local laws may seem limited, their impact can be pretty significant.

Working caregivers shouldn’t end up unemployed because of their responsibilities at home–but the fact is that they sometimes do. While we may not be able to legislate employer attitudes, we can take responsibility for knowing our rights. Read the report here: “Entitled Caregivers as a Protected Class?: The Growth of State and Local Laws Prohibiting Family Responsibilities Discrimination.”

For more information about each local law collected in the survey, visit www.worklifelaw.org/pubs/LocalFRDLawsDetail.html.

Additional findings of the report can be found after the break.

  • The sizes and types of employers (whether public or private) covered by local FRD laws vary, but most apply to private employers, with some covering businesses as small as those with only one employee.
  • While the vast majority of states have no explicit protections against FRD, laws or regulations in Alaska, Connecticut, New Jersey, and the District of Columbia are the exceptions to the rule.
  • States including Florida, Maryland, Michigan, Oregon, and Pennsylvania have the most protections under local FRD laws, increasing the likelihood that a business or an employee in that state may be covered.

Local governments that have explicitly banned Family Responsibilities Discrimination also include:

• Tucson, Arizona • Atlanta, Georgia • Cook County, Chicago & Champaign, Illinois • Boston, Cambridge & Medford, Massachusetts • St. Paul, Minnesota • Kansas City, Missouri • Tacoma, Washington • Milwaukee, Wisconsin

*This post originally appeared in the SEIU Blog on December 17, 2009. Reprinted with permission from the author.

About the Author: Kate Thomas is a blogger, web producer and new media coordinator at the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), a labor union with 2.1 million members in the healthcare, public and property service sectors. Kate’s passions include the progressive movement, the many wonders of the Internet and her job working for an organization that is helping to improve the lives of workers and fight for meaningful health care and labor law reform. Prior to working at SEIU, Katie worked for the American Medical Student Association (AMSA) as a communications/public relations coordinator and editor of AMSA’s newsletter appearing in The New Physician magazine.

Obama's Not Alone: Inviting Cities to the Labor Day Barbecue

Wednesday, September 2nd, 2009

(Many people view Labor Day as just another day off from work, the end of summer, or a fine day for a barbecue. We think that it’s a holiday with a rich history, and an excellent occasion to examine what workers, and workers rights activism, means to this country. Our Taking Back Labor Day posts in September will do that, from a variety of perspectives, and we hope you’ll tune in and join the discussion!)

*****

We always knew it would take a fight to enact the kinds of sweeping reforms we need to fix the economy so that it really works for working Americans. The Employee Free Choice Act was never set to sail through Congress without opposition from the nation’s most anti-union employers. No one expects that it will be much easier to repair our broken immigration laws, overhaul flawed trade policy, improve retirement security or ensure that parents can finally afford time off work to welcome a newborn. But the sheer nastiness of the health care reform fight begs the question: if even modest reforms are this difficult for a popular Democratic President with large majorities in both chambers of Congress, how will we ever achieve the economic restructuring the nation needs?

One way to improve the odds that working people will have more to celebrate on Labor Days to come is to ensure that our cities get a special invitation to the national policy conversation. Picture it as a giant nationwide barbecue: gathered around the grill, cities can share local policy victories that have measurably improved the lives of their own residents – and can provide a successful model for other cities and for national action. Raising the profile of proven local policies may make the reforms proposed in Washington feel a lot less lonely.

San Francisco can share its own universal health care model, which currently provides 45,000 uninsured city residents with access to affordable primary and preventive care, prescriptions and lab tests through city clinics and participating private hospitals. The track record of Healthy San Francisco, as the program is known, should be informing the national health care debate to a far greater extent than it is.

While they’re talking health, the City by the Bay can also recount its experience guaranteeing everyone employed in the city the opportunity to earn paid sick days – a policy that is projected to reduce costs and improve public health and has not increased unemployment. Washington DC and Milwaukee have already passed weaker versions of this policy. Now New York City is looking to emulate San Francisco’s success. Examples like these can boost national legislation like the Healthy Families Act which would let working people nationwide stop having to make the untenable choice between their health and a needed paycheck.

Minneapolis could also pipe up. The City of Lakes insists that when they provide subsidies for economic development, companies that get public money need to create living wage jobs. The successful policy is a vivid example to cities across the country which regularly provide lucrative private tax breaks only to lure poverty-level jobs.

Then there’s New York, where grassroots organizations citywide have teamed up with the State Department of Labor to educate employees and employers about workplace laws and identify cases where employers are illegally cheating their workers out of pay. The program, known as New York Wage Watch has attracted national controversy because it enlists unions in the effort to detect illegal activity by employers. The debate provides a perfect opportunity to consider which poses a greater threat to the country: the pervasiveness of employers stealing employee wages or the potential for groups – which have no special power to look at a company’s books or confidential documents – to intrude on private business as they uncover illegal activity? Lawbreakers may be right to fear that this local education and monitoring effort could go national.

Finally, Los Angeles should join the party. Home to the nation’s busiest seaport, Los Angeles realized it would never significantly improve air quality as long as the dirty diesel trucks servicing the port were owned by overstretched independent operators without the resources to buy or maintain cleaner vehicles. The city took bold action to both clean up the trucks and transform the drivers from exploited independent contractors into employees with a chance of improving their own working conditions. Not surprisingly, national business interests don’t like the idea of port truckers unionizing. But other port cities are considering the policy, with the potential to improve the quality of both air and jobs.

Federal policy battles cannot be won in a vacuum. Cities and towns across the country demonstrate the success of policies that improve the lives of working people. This is one Labor Day barbecue we should all attend.

About the Author: Amy Traub is the Director of Research at the Drum Major Institute. A native of the Cleveland area, Amy is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Chicago. She received a graduate fellowship to study political science at Columbia University, where she earned her Masters degree in 2001 and completed coursework towards a Ph.D. Her studies focused on comparative political economy, political theory, and social movements. Funded by a field research grant from the Tinker Foundation, Amy conducted original research in Mexico City, exploring the development of the Mexican student movement. Before coming to the Drum Major Institute, Amy headed the research department of a major New York City labor union, where her efforts contributed to the resolution of strikes and successful union organizing campaigns by hundreds of working New Yorkers. She has also been active on the local political scene working with progressive elected officials. Amy resides in Manhattan Valley with her husband.

This blog was originally written for DMI Blog for Labor Day 2009. Re-printed with permission by the author.

What's Wrong with This Picture?

Tuesday, September 1st, 2009

The following is cross-posted on the Winning Workplaces blog. I thought it was appropriate for Today’s Workplace’s focus on taking back Labor Day. After all, this holiday should offer pause not just for workers, but for company leaders to reflect on how they can do more with less in this difficult economic environment. Enjoy, and feel free to drop a comment below.
– MH

According to two new, independent employer studies – this one and this one – while more than half of employers are planning to hire full-time employees over the next year, over half also don’t offer paid maternity leave (and those that do provide only around 50% pay, on average).

This recruiting/retention picture doesn’t add up for me.  Companies that believe they’re seeing light at the end of the economic tunnel should focus on pleasing their current workforce and getting employees engaged – especially if they’ve had to make some wage or other concessions since the beginning of the recession.  This is all part of sharing the recovery as well as the pain with workers.

This is not to say that companies that see more demand shouldn’t hire more talent to meet it.  But while they make plans to do so, they should use this time as an opportunity to ramp up their benefit packages and other methods for improving productivity and commitment so their existing knowledge base is fully on board for the increased workload – and so they can serve as better ambassadors to acclimate new hires to the organizational culture.

Do you agree or disagree with my assessment that the above-mentioned studies represent conflicting human capital strategies?

About the Author: Mark Harbeke ensures that content on Winning Workplaces’ website is up-to-date, accurate and engaging. He also writes and edits their monthly e-newsletter, Ideas, and provides graphic design and marketing support. His experience includes serving as editorial assistant for Meredith Corporation’s Midwest Living magazine title, publications editor for Visionation, Ltd., and proofreader for the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy. Mark holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Drake University. Winning Workplaces is a not-for-profit providing consulting, training and information to help small and midsize organizations create great workplaces. Too often, the information and resources needed to create a high-performance workplace are out of reach for all but the largest organizations. Winning Workplaces is changing that by offering employers affordable consulting, training and information.

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