Even though the majority of the working population in America are parents, employers seem to be largely in the dark about how to cater benefits packages to people who are raising kids, especially working moms. Thanks to the openness of the internet and highly successful working moms (like Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook) talking about their experiences, a whole new avenue of conversation has started about making the workplace more family-friendly. The law provides a starting point, but there are little things (even free things) you can do to help make pregnancy and the return to work easier for working moms.
First, a disclosure before I go on - I had a lot of help from my wife, a working mom of two children, when writing this particular article. She had a lot of thoughts about what she wished she would have had access to when our children were young and what employers could do now to make the return to work easier. With that out of the way, let's continue...
What’s Required of Employers by Law
Employers with 50 or more full-time equivalents are required to allow men and women to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave each year under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA). Most employers will allow their employees to use vacation or sick time during their leave so that part of the weeks are paid. Some even offer partially paid leave.
One of the provisions in the Affordable Care Act includes employer requirements for working moms who are still nursing. This stems from the scientific belief that breast milk, for the first year, is what’s best for babies, as well as the reality of breastfeeding — which is that it’s time consuming. Women are more likely to give up on breastfeeding if they don’t feel their employer is supportive of providing work breaks for pumping.
The ACA amended section 7 of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) to require the following:
- Employers must allow “reasonable break time for an employee to express breast milk for her nursing child for 1 year after the child’s birth each time such employee has [the] need to express the milk.” For most women, this means every three hours because that’s how often babies feed. For some, it may be more often, but the law requires that employers allow working mothers to pump as often as they feel the need. It generally takes about 30 minutes to pump, but again, that time could vary. Not adhering to a pumping schedule can lead to infection and decreased milk supply, so most working moms will rigidly follow their schedule.
- Employers are also required to provide “a place, other than a bathroom, that is shielded from view and free from intrusion from coworkers and the public, which may be used by an employee to express breast milk.” This means that the door to the room must lock (“free from intrusion”) so the woman has privacy during her “reasonable break time.” This is a requirement for every breastfeeding mother, regardless of how many you have at a time. If you do not have enough rooms (because not everyone has a private office), a schedule will need to be worked out.
These requirements apply to any business that has to adhere to FLSA and FMLA standards. In addition, make sure to check your specific state’s labor laws, as they can vary. For example, Massachusetts passed a law allowing for accommodations for pregnant women if they should ask for it or require it.
5 Ways to Make Life Easier for Working Moms
1. Be Patient and Understanding
Pregnant women are required to see the doctor once a month during the first and second trimesters (weeks 8 through 27, typically). Once the third trimester begins (at week 28), they go in every two weeks, and then during the last month (weeks 36 through 40) they go in every single week until the baby is born, which most doctors will allow to go up to two weeks past the due date.
These visits are time-consuming and frustrating (for the mom-to-be also), but they are very important to ensure a healthy pregnancy. The best thing you can do is be patient and understanding. These expectant mothers will already feel guilty about missing work. If flexible schedules are an option in your workplace, offer to let them make up the time at home, but if not, they’ll have to use sick time.
Speaking of sick time — at the beginning of pregnancy, a lot of women are ill. This sometimes means that getting up in the morning and coming to work is more difficult than it was before. If an employee is experiencing morning sickness and coming in a half-hour late helps her out, be kind and let her push her schedule forward until it subsides (usually when the second trimester starts).
In addition, pregnancy is oftentimes uncomfortable. Many women experience debilitating pain at the end of their pregnancies — sometimes so bad that simply walking is a challenge. Let them sit when they need to. If you need to talk face-to-face, consider walking to her office instead of making her come to you. And let her wear whatever shoes she can handle, even if that means those Adidas massage sandals. Unless you’ve been there yourself, you have no idea how bad her feet hurt.
2. Make Sure You Have a Refrigerator
If women are pumping breast milk, they will need a place to put it. If you have a communal fridge somewhere, she can put it in there. Unfortunately, some women have reported coworkers tampering with the milk, particularly in environments where people steal each other’s lunches.
The main issue here is that if the milk has been disturbed, the mother probably can’t use it. One woman reported finding a bag of milk opened and in a different fridge, so she threw it away because she couldn’t ensure that nothing had happened to it.
If your budget will allow it, you may want to consider giving her a private mini-fridge in her office while she is breastfeeding. That way, she knows the milk is being stored securely while she’s at work and other employees won’t feel uncomfortable if they see it. This fridge could be moved to a different working mom’s office when she’s finished with it.
3. Literally Do Their Heavy Lifting
No pregnant woman is going to willingly push work onto their coworkers. They’re going to try their hardest to get all their work done prior to going on leave so they don’t force an added burden on their coworkers — but they’re not supposed to lift heavy things because it’s unsafe for the baby, especially in the third trimester.
Many job descriptions have a requirement that employees be able to lift up to 50 pounds, but pregnant women simply should not. Do them a favor and offer to take over that part of their job until the doctor clears them for normal activities, which is usually six weeks postpartum, but can vary based on delivery and any post-pregnancy issues.
4. Telecommuting and Flexible Schedules
Working moms (and of course, dads) are dealing with kids who don’t understand schedules. Babies, especially, struggle to find a schedule at first. This could mean that an employee is better off on a slightly different schedule — perhaps a half-hour or an hour earlier or later.
If 8:00am to 4:00pm is a more convenient schedule for the new parent and it’s a feasible solution for your workplace, it might behoove you to oblige. Working moms appreciate the flexibility because they want to get their work done, but they aren’t necessarily in charge of their own schedules anymore.
In addition, lots of working moms enjoy telecommuting options because it lets them spend more time with their kids. Even one day a week working from home can increase job satisfaction. If telecommuting and flexible schedules are conducive to your workplace, let working moms clock in on the weekends when their kids are napping.
5. Child Care Subsidies
If the mother is back from maternity leave, someone else needs to be watching the kid and new parents are in for a rude awakening when it comes to the cost of daycare. Infant care ranges from about $400 to $1,800 per month, depending on where you live. Here in the Washington DC metro, which is where I live, the going rate for a nanny is $24 an hour!
Providing a childcare subsidy for working moms can ease their minds a bit, as well as alleviate some of the financial burden. In addition, offering a Dependent Care FSA (DCFSA) will allow your employees to save money toward child care while saving money on their taxes.
Employing Working Moms
Be sure to discuss an employee’s return to work before she even goes on maternity leave. No working mom wants to formulate a plan on their first day back and you never know what kind of mess you’ll be dealing with that day, so discuss it beforehand and get everything set up before she gets back. You’ll both be grateful later on.
Companies employ people — people with lives outside the office and major life events going on constantly. The main thing to remember is that working moms (and dads) may always have their kids on their minds, but they’ll still be hard workers who want to do a good job. Don’t treat them any differently when they get back from leave, but try to be accommodating when they ask.
What are you doing to make the return to work easier for working moms? Leave us a comment below or contact us. We’d love to hear your ideas!