Advice from an HRBP
As a HR Business Partner, I advise managers on how to provide a positive, engaging work environment to their teams, and I support employees as they navigate their careers and manager
On a personal note, I am a mom to a 22 month old energetic toddler and have been through maternity leave and the return to work from both sides of the employer/employee perspective. I understand the emotional and financial complexities involved during this time, so jumped at the opportunity to address common questions I get from employees and friends alike.
For me, the anticipation of going back to work was 100 times harder than the reality. I remember leaving for work that first day filled with emotional turmoil. My baby felt like an extension of myself and I could not fathom how I would merge my previous professional identity with my new identity as a mom. I then went to work and had a newfound appreciation for my “old life”. I drank a hot cup of coffee, had an adult conversation, and made decisions that didn’t involve naps or diapers. That was the beginning of merging my pre-baby and post-baby life, and becoming my whole self. Looking back at that time I am so proud of everything I have accomplished as a mom and a professional. I have mostly been able to strike a balance between family and work and get fulfillment from both parts of my life and identity. Some weeks I feel like I am slacking as a mom and some weeks I feel like I am slacking as an employee. Then I remember that I am my harshest critic, and I see my son thriving and my work being valued.
In the United States, 71% of mothers are in the workforce, and 62% of married parents are dual income (USDOL Bureau of Labor Statistics). I have seen our society progress in supporting women and parents in the workplace, but there is much more to be done. Working mothers are the norm, not the exception, and we need our institutions to reflect this reality. Progress will not happen unless we push our political and corporate leaders to recognize that paid parental leave and supportive work environments are not “women’s issues” that need to be accommodated, but are the basic needs of a society that values families. We will not see this change unless we get mothers and allies in positions of power to push for laws and policies that support all parents. I hope my advice inspires you to push for change at your company. Your efforts now will benefit the next mom at work, so hopefully one day this advice will be obsolete.
Q&A with Jen
Q: I am pregnant. How do I figure out maternity leave?
Maternity leave in the United States is complicated. What we call “maternity leave” is cobbled together from a combination of federal law, state law, short term disability, and company policy. Maternity leave can mean unpaid job protection, and/or paid leave. Here are a few basic things to know:
Federal Law: The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) means that your job is protected for 12 weeks for family and medical reasons, including caring for a new baby. This time can be used at one time or spread out over a year. This is not paid. Details and eligibility requirements can be found here.
State Law: This varies depending on where you live. Often, it means that your job is protected, and occasionally this means you get paid. As of 2018, four states have paid leave – CA, NJ, RI and NY. WA state and Washington DC’s paid leave laws go into effect in 2020. State benefits run concurrently with FMLA. Resources to see what your state provides can be found here and here.
Short Term Disability: Short term disability is paid leave that covers a range of medical conditions and often covers pregnancy and recovery from birth. Some states provide or require your employer to provide this, and others do not. More details can be found here.
Q: So what does this mean?
Hopefully you have a great HR/Benefits team and they can guide you through this process. Laws and policies change often, so the reality is that your HR team either may not know the latest laws or communicate them in an easy way. HR teams often outsource this complexity to outside administrators who know the law, but sometimes are lacking in customer service. Here is how I recommend you find out what your maternity coverage is:
Understand your rights. See if you qualify for FMLA and any state laws related to job protection, short term disability, and/or paid parental leave. (See links above)
Read your employee handbook. Your handbook should say whether your company has short term disability, and/or paid parental leave.
Talk to HR. Here are some questions to ask:
Do I qualify for short term disability?
Does the company pay for parental leave?
What is the total length of time off I get paid and unpaid?
If you receive paid time off, ask: Is time off fully paid or a percentage of my salary? Is there a cap on monthly payments? How do I get paid during leave (company payroll, leave of absence administrator, government debit card)?
If I want to extend my leave past company policy/FMLA, how do I get this approved?
Ask other moms at your work. They have been through the process and can explain how things look from the employee’s perspective.
Q: What if I decide to extend my maternity leave?
First, don’t feel bad for extending your leave. Your company has survived without you for a few months, they can survive a bit longer. Maternity leave extensions happen all the time, so managers are generally supportive of this. Ultimately, they are just happy that you are planning to return eventually. Before you go to your manager, figure out how much time you want to extend. This does not have to be exact, but there is a difference between a few weeks and a few months. It is likely that the extended time will be unpaid so make sure you are financially able to do this.
Returning to work
Q: My pre-baby work schedule seems overwhelming now that I am a parent. What do I do?
Ask for flexibility. I strongly believe that employees can perform just as well, if not better on flexible schedules. Employees are happier, more engaged, highly efficient, and loyal to their employer when companies accommodate people’s personal lives. With technology today, there is no reason why moms or anyone else needs to be in an office for 8+ hours a day, 5 days a week. Flexibility can mean a lot of things and include part-time, work from home, early schedules (i.e. 7am-3pm), core hours (i.e. in the office 10am-3pm), job sharing, or any combination of this.
Q: My company doesn’t have a flexible work policy, my manager is “old school”, and no one on my team has a flex schedule. How do I ask for this?
Think of what schedule is best for your family, but make sure you consider business needs when you make your pitch. A flex schedule does not mean you come and go as you want. Managers are most supportive when you have outlined a specific schedule and expressed how you will maintain productivity and communication even if you aren’t clocking in 8 hours a day at the office. Tell your manager how you will be more productive with flexibility. If your manager is not used to accommodating flex schedules, I recommend you pitch this as a trial period. Propose the schedule as a 3 or 6 month trial and reevaluate then. If you prove that your performance does not suffer, then they are likely to agree to this long term.
Q: I am not ready to go back to work, but I can’t afford to take more time off. Help!
This is tough, and sadly very common because most companies do not provide any paid parental leave. This is particularly true for women who work in the service industry, retail, and other industries that are not particularly supportive of working parents. My honest advice is to only focus on survival the first month back. If you must go back to work before you are ready, it is likely you are dealing with physical recovery, sleep deprivation, and/or are emotionally overwhelmed. Under this stress, no one has capacity to be a great employee. Go to work, do your job, but do not overextend yourself. Focus on getting used to your new schedule. Once you get the hang of it, you will start to feel more capable and then you can slowly take on more. I promise you will be in a much better place in a few months.
Pumping at Work
New moms sometimes get very anxious about pumping at work. There are federal and state laws that address your right to pump at work. You can find details here and here. As with many laws, there is some grey area, however this grey area makes HR departments and employment attorneys err on the side of new moms. Hopefully your company has a room dedicated to pumping, if not you should ask for this before you return to work.
Q: There are no other new moms in my office. How do I ask about pumping?
I recommend you tell your HR team or manager something along the lines of, “When I return to work, I will need access to a private room with chair, electrical outlet, and lock on the door. This is necessary for the health and wellbeing of my child and me.” If you don’t get an adequate response, you need to be persistent. Some people are clueless about pumping, so may not realize how important this is. It’s annoying you even need to ask for this, but stay persistent and consult with your HR team.
If you are in an office, you can block out your calendar for pumping and that will ensure that you can take the time needed to pump. If you work in medicine, education, law enforcement, foodservice, or other uncontrolled environment, it may be more difficult to schedule this time, but remember that you are legally entitled to pumping breaks and a private space to pump. Technically, this only applies to non-exempt employees, but I still recommend you have this law handy if your employer pushes back. Think of a setup that would work well for your work environment, and propose this as your recommendation. It is a lot easier to say yes to a tangible solution than a general request.
Q: What do I do if people are using the lactation room for meetings/phone calls/naps?
I have heard so many stories about clueless men (and women!) who think the pumping room is open to everyone’s needs. Pumping moms’ needs outweigh others. Kick them out! Tell them that you need this room immediately for medical reasons. Then tell your management or HR team that the room needs a sign and/or lock.