Maria Shriver

Managing Pregnancy And Parenting In The American Workplace

Image: A pregnant woman
Katie Collins / Press Association Images via AP file

Many expectant parents have a shelfful of books to guide them through pregnancy and child birth, but preparing for how an employer will handle the news of a pregnancy, and understanding how the law protects working moms and dads, is a consideration worth equal time.

That’s the case being made by three female attorneys who work for A Better Balance, a national legal advocacy group committed to protecting and advancing the interests of working families. The trio have written “Babygate,” a user-friendly manual covering every conceivable aspect of managing the realities of parenthood at work, from handling morning sickness, to figuring out maternity leave, to securing time and space to pump breast milk.

With real-life stories from working moms and dads, a state by state guide to the law, and even sample letters for employers, “Babygate” aims to educate and empower working parents so that they can benefit from the law’s protections and understand and prepare for its shortfalls.

Here, Dina Bakst, one of the co-authors of the book, and the co-founder and co-president of A Better Balance, shares the most common discriminatory scenario she sees women experience, discusses the shock she often witnesses when women discover the limits of their maternity leave, and explains why men’s expanding role as caregivers will play a crucial role in achieving full equality for women.

Workplace issues like the gender pay gap and leadership style are things women hear about all the time; do you think there’s awareness that, according to the research the book cites, discrimination against pregnant women and mothers is the strongest form of sex discrimination in the workplace today?

Joan Williams has said, to paraphrase, “If we want gender equality, women should die childless at age 30,” and I think that what happens for a lot of women, particularly younger women when they enter the workforce, is that they’re so focused on working hard and climbing the career ladder and doing a good job, that they may not be thinking about the barriers that lie ahead when they become pregnant or need time off. And that includes father too, because more fathers are caregivers today and may need leave or workplace flexibility because they may have a breadwinning wife.

It’s really when you’re hit over the head with the reality of how woefully inadequate our laws and policies are, that working parents, mothers in particular, have a wake-up call about the sad state of affairs. The sad reality is that a lot of us are just so busy and tired just trying to get by and manage our lives, that there has not necessarily been the sort of massive outcry.

But we hear it at A Better Balance. We run a free legal clinic for low-wage workers but we often get calls from workers across the economic spectrum, and truly, you know, people are stunned, often stunned, when they realize how limited their rights are in comparison to the rights of parents in other countries in the world or just in general.

What are the most common discriminatory scenarios you see women dealing with?

One very common pattern is pregnancy push-out; it’s when pregnant women in low-wage and physically demanding jobs require a modest accommodation to stay healthy and keep earning a paycheck. And even though accommodations are routinely made for workers who are either injured on the job or have disabilities, employers will opt not to accommodate pregnant workers, and the economic consequences are often devastating for pregnant women and their families.

Armanda Legros, a former Better Balance client, recently testified before the Senate HELP Committee. She worked for an armored trucking company; this was a well-paying job that allowed her to support her family and be a breadwinner. Unfortunately, her employer took one look at her doctor’s note and pushed her off the job which meant that Armanda would lose her health insurance, she would wind up on food stamps needing to feed her baby -- she had a toddler -- by putting water in his cereal instead of milk at times. She was scared every time she looked in the empty fridge.

This is a very powerful form of pregnancy discrimination that is on the rise for women in low-wage, and physically demanding, non-traditional exacerbates the wage gap and it puts women in a poverty hole at a moment when they really need financial security the most. It’s an outrage.

What do you see on the other side of this in terms of employers’ behavior?

A lot of employers recognize that treating pregnant workers and new parents fairly is smart business practice and good for the bottom line. They have adopted best practices in terms of making sure pregnant workers are afforded the same accommodations as other workers, that all new parents have adequate time off after child birth, and that they have flexibility. There are a growing number of these businesses, and many were highlighted at the White House Summit for Working Families recently in D.C.

That being said, I am continually shocked by the employers of workers we hear from, who really haven’t gotten the memo that pregnancy discrimination is illegal, that you can’t just assume that a new mother doesn’t want to travel or can’t handle a certain job, or that a pregnant worker can just be put out on disability instead of being given the opportunity to work with a modest adjustment and continue to earn a paycheck. Ignorance is a real barrier to justice and it’s very pervasive in this country. We must do a better job educating employers about their obligations and employees about their rights.

Many women are hesitant to involve a lawyer because they fear it will poison the well at work or undermine future job prospects. Can you talk about that?

Our goal is to avoid that situation. We really are trying to educate women and parents to understand their rights and to figure out how to advocate for themselves before a situation blows up.

It’s about understanding what you’re entitled to, so you can informally advise your employer and educate your employer. And not in a nasty way, but in a way that simply lets them know what the law is so that there can be a good faith dialogue about how to make it work. I think that’s everybody’s goal: to educate, to empower and to help women stay on the job. Unfortunately, sometimes, there are limited protections where an employer will not recognize the business case for paid leave or will not want to provide certain accommodations or flexible work, but we strongly advocate giving it a try.

Are you seeing more men come to the table to talk about these issues and what impact will that have?

We are hearing from more men. I think supporting men in their efforts to be caregivers, whether in terms of taking advantage of leave that may be available to them or some aspects of workplace flexibility, is absolutely critical. And from a bigger perspective, it’s important to women’s equality because we’ll never have real equality until men feel free to be caregivers as well without penalty.

The EEOC recently issued guidance urging employers to provide equal bonding time for men when it comes to their leave programs; I think that’s an important reminder to employers that men deserve these protections too; they should be treated fairly and not penalized when they need some modicum of flexibility or to take advantage of a policy.

The length of our working days has slowly increased, and often both parents are working out of economic necessity. Are we reaching a critical mass in terms of figuring out how families can function in this new paradigm?

I think that the demand for reforming our work family laws and policies to meet the needs of today’s workforce is really bubbling up. Workplace flexibility is a high priority for this generation of workers entering the workforce, both women and men. There is just a much stronger sense that it’s time for real reform to help all of us who are collectively in this care crisis -- whether you’re a mother, father, daughter, son -- and that we need to do more to help workers avoid the impossible choice between caring for their families and risking their economic security. It’s just an untenable situation and the U.S lags really far behind the rest of the world.

You started A Better Balance nearly a decade ago. Have you seen progress and are you optimistic?

We have seen progress in the last decade which is very inspiring and keeps us fighting the fight. In the last year alone here in New York City, we’ve passed two major laws: the New York City Pregnant Workers Fairness Act and the New York City Earned Sick Time Act. Similar laws have passed in states and localities around the country, and we’ve worked on drafting those pieces of legislation. Many of these bills have passed with bipartisan support; there is a growing recognition that this is not a Democrat or Republican issue, that these are issues that everybody should stand behind.

What is encouraging is to hear President Obama talk about this and the need for systemic solutions at the White House Summit on Working Families. It’s very inspiring...So there is certainly a lot more work that lies ahead but I feel like the movement for change has grown. A Better Balance has a lot more partners in the field, diverse partners, who are all engaged in this fight. So I’m optimistic that we’ll see some more success in the years to come.

This interview has been edited.

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