Easing the Way Back: New Mothers, Old Jobs

Times Staff Writer

When Diane Quon left the hospital for the first time with her new son, she went straight to work for Paramount Pictures--at home in Alhambra. Despite being away from her office, she was able to help shepherd the videocassette release of the hit movie "Top Gun."

Katherine Barrett returned to her job as vice president for advertising at Investors Daily 3 1/2 months after the birth of her daughter. But she has been working on a flexible schedule during her first year of motherhood. "If I want to get in at 6 a.m., that's OK because I have lots of clients on the East Coast. Everybody has their own time frame (here), which works out beautifully for women if they have kids."

Quon and Barrett are lucky. Their companies helped them develop work schedules that allowed them to ease back into their jobs while adjusting to motherhood. They are among a growing number of women who work for firms with benefit plans for new parents.

Not all new mothers and pregnant women have such accommodating bosses, however. Although some big companies offer flexible work schedules, time off and occasionally even pay and child care for such workers, most small and medium-size firms say they can't afford to offer anything of the sort.

Proposed federal legislation, a recent Supreme Court ruling allowing for expanded pregnancy benefits and newly raised workplace safety concerns have heightened the debate over what employers should do to help employees who are pregnant or have newborn children.

First came working women, now working mothers. Today, women fill 33% of all management jobs and make up 44% of the work force, a figure that is expected to rise to 48% by 1995. In 1986, 49% of mothers with children under one worked, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, up from 34% in 1979.

"That's a huge change in seven years. That's why this issue has emerged," said Margaret Meiers, an associate in career and family programs at Catalyst, a New York-based research organization that specializes in career development for women.

"Companies aren't looking at it altruistically, they are looking at it only as a business cost for them," she said. "If a company has a female employee that it has trained and invested in and who has been with the company several years, she becomes a valuable asset to the company. If she takes a parental leave, the company has to recruit and train a new employee."

The United States is the only one of the 117 industrialized nations that does not guarantee parental leaves for all new mothers, Catalyst said. Except in California and a dozen other states that guarantee leaves and job protection for pregnant women, practices vary from company to company.

Current federal law requires only that companies that have disability plans treat pregnancy like any other disability. "The evolution of maternity benefits in the rest of the world was never associated with disability as it is in the United States," said Dana Friedman, a research associate at the Conference Board, a business research organization in New York. "They were based on maternity or child health and labor laws. They never had to (equate) having a child with breaking an arm."

Some Take Disability

At companies with disability plans, pregnant women deemed disabled by their doctors typically get up to 12 weeks of formal leave--frequently with pay--and sometimes additional time off without pay.

From various sources, there has been a push to mandate broader parental benefits. In California, for example, all women deemed disabled as a result of pregnancy are entitled to up to four months of disability leave, depending on their doctors' recommendations, according to Wanda Kirby, the Los Angeles district administrator for the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing. The law also guarantees that the women will get their old jobs back upon returning to work.

In a landmark decision in January, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld California's law, which was challenged by business interests and some women's rights activists who feared it would deter the hiring of women. The court's interpretation gives women rights beyond the 1978 federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act, which mandated that pregnancy be treated as no more than a disability to avoid charges of reverse discrimination against men.

"We had a flood of calls from women after the ruling," said Meiers at Catalyst. "There was an increase in the the number of women questioning their employers because of this decision. Companies now are more likely to look at policies to stand by the law."

In February, Reps. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.) and William L. Clay (D.-Mo.) reintroduced federal legislation that, among other things, would provide unpaid parental leaves for both men and women. The Family and Medical Leave Act would require employers with 15 or more workers to provide new mothers and fathers as long as 18 weeks of unpaid leave.

Among the opponents of the legislation are the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Assn. of Manufacturers. Piia Aarma, senior associate director of human resources and equal opportunity at the manufacturers' association in Washington said: "Parental leave is a great benefit. We would encourage our members to provide it. We don't oppose parental leaves; we oppose a federal mandate."

Critics maintain that small businesses would bear the greatest financial burdens and productivity losses from holding positions open for workers on leave. Large companies have the staff to fill in, but small employers do not, they say. "This particular bill puts one benefit above all the others. It is going to limit the other benefits that can be offered by the company," Aarma said.

But few companies are taking a vocal stand on the legislation, according to the Conference Board's Friedman. "Most major companies have parental leaves more generous than the proposed legislation," she said. "Many want to continue it as a voluntary (program). After the Pregnancy Discrimination Act was passed, some companies cut back to the minimum of the law."

Variety of Benefits

Catalyst in 1983 polled 1,500 of the largest U.S. firms on the issue. Of the 384 firms that responded, 95% provided disability leaves (with the amounts of pay, if any, varying), 52% provided additional unpaid leaves with job guarantees to women and 37% also provided unpaid leaves to men with job guarantees.

The survey indicated the average disability leave was six to eight weeks for a normal delivery, nine to 12 weeks for a Caesarean section. The average time for an unpaid leave was as long as three months. In addition, 60% allowed some employees to return on a part-time basis.

The challenge for business, according to Catalyst's Meiers, is "how to make parental leave a normal, manageable situation like a vacation. It can be treated as part of everyday business. Once companies get a handle on it, it could be a normal business expense like a three-martini lunch," Meiers said. She points out that employers typically have six months to plan on how to fill in for an employee on a maternity leave.

But many companies contend that it is simply too expensive to replace an employee on a short-term basis. Indeed, one consultant's estimate puts the cost of hiring of a replacement at 93% of the first year's salary of an employee. That expense accounts for the time spent on interviews and paper work along with the loss of productivity while getting the new employee acclimated.

Reliance on Temporary Help

In its "Corporate Guide to Parental Leaves," Catalyst recommends in-house temporary pools to fill for clerical staffers. McDonald's has been using such an in-house pool, staffed by many working mothers who want the flexible hours, for eight years.

Official Airlines Guides of Oakbrook, Ill., uses a group leader replacement system. Every department is divided into groups, each with a supervisor and a staff of six to eight researchers, one of whom is designated group leader. The group leader is trained to be able to step in when the supervisor takes a leave.

Time Inc., which offers new parents a one-year unpaid leave, uses what it calls a supplementary replacement program for jobs open three months or longer. The person hired to fill in for an employee is given a letter outlining the date when the job will end.

When it comes to senior-level employees, there is less likelihood that a replacement will be hired. "Real senior people seem to come back fast; they often work at home or over the phone," said Jane Cummins, Time's assistant manger of recruitment and development.

With Rank, a Bit of Ease

Even so, women in management appear to have the most flexibility. Soon after Quon, the product manager at the Home Video division of Paramount Pictures, told her supervisor that she was pregnant, she was assigned an assistant to help run things while Quon was away from the office.

Quon worked even during her eight-week disability period. Messengers were running daily between her home and the office. She was in touch daily with her assistant.

"They never told me I needed to work. It was more me wanting to stay involved in what was happening," she said. "I just wanted to be sure to know what was going on, so when I go back to work (later this month), I don't feel totally out of it."

At Lissa Zanville's home in North Hollywood, her 3-month-old daughter falls asleep to the tapping of computer keys. Zanville was promoted to director of media services for Pacific Bell the day before her child was born.

"I was sitting around thinking about a dilemma," recalled her boss, Maury Rosas. "Here, I have a very talented lady who was going to have a child. I was trying to think of a creative way to keep her in touch. We had the technology in place to enable her to work at home." Zanville became part of a pilot project using Pac Bell's telecommuting facilities.

'In Your Lax Time'

A computer was moved out of the office to Zanville's home. A new phone line was installed as well as office equipment. "What I ask of her is, 'It's your schedule. Your baby is not awake 24 hours a day; in you lax time carry on your business.' "

Rosas added, however: "I think she is working too hard." He said staff meetings are often held at Zanville's house. "We take turns holding the baby. It's an interesting new phenomenon."

At Levi Strauss in San Francisco, many new mothers take advantage of part-time or flex-time schedules or job sharing. "You work it out with your department," said Meg Franklin, manager of benefits services. "It's done in many ways."

"People kind of make do," said Jan Goodenough, staff manager at Pac Bell in San Francisco. When a manager who worked in San Diego took a leave, Goodenough covered for the absent employee, mostly by telephone.

Some new mothers return to unhappy work situations and resentful employers. One advertising executive, who asked not to be identified, said that when she returned to her old job after a pregnancy leave, "everything I did wasn't the way management wanted it done." That happened, she said, even though she was bringing in higher sales.

The company, she said, tried to get her to quit, but she refused and instead joined a company that allows her to work on a flexible schedule.

Men Prefer Vacation Time

Companies that provide unpaid parental leaves usually offer them to men but there seem to be few takers, apparently in part because employers often encourage them to use personal or vacation days instead.

Some believe that the dollars-and-cents issue of parental leaves is far less important than the quality of life. T. Berry Brazelton, professor at Harvard Medical School and chief of child development at Children's Hospital in Boston, said: "For her sake and her children, it is critical (for a new mother) to be home at least four months." He maintains that the pressure to return to work deprives women of the chance to learn to become good mothers.

"Most mothers have to learn (mothering), but their attention is divided by having to go back to work," Brazelton said. "We don't know what it does to children to put them in day care so early."

He added: "It has to do with human values. Are we going to back up people so they can learn to be nurturing, optimal in performance when they come back? Business has to be attentive to individual needs. People are hurting a great deal. . . . I would think it is a lot more costly to have employees dragging around with lousy morale than to give them a boost with some time off. They would be grateful, helpful and feeling great about going back to work."

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