It has been seven years since Valerie Rae Green's first lesson in the politics of parental leave. A secretary at a small law office in Santa Ana at the time, she ran out of maternity leave a scant three weeks after her child was born.
She asked for an extension. Her boss balked. Her doctor insisted. She ended up losing her job.
"It was supposed to have been one of the happiest times of my life," she recalled, "but I was miserable."
Eventually, she sued her old boss for employment discrimination--and won. But when she re-entered the job market, her first concern--after salary--was the quality of maternity benefits.
Green isn't alone. In the space of a decade, maternity leave has quietly become a standard demand among workers, not just at companies interested in complying with state law but at all firms interested in attracting and retaining experienced employees.
The United States still lags far behind other industrialized nations in legislating parental leave for workers. Swedish workers, for example, may take up to 12 months of paid leave to care for young children. Canadian workers are guaranteed up to 10 months of leave with job security and partial pay. Italians get up to five months with 80% pay.
But organizations tracking workplace issues say interest in broadening parental leave is growing here, despite repeated presidential vetoes of legislation that would mandate minimal leave protection for both mothers and fathers nationwide.
Part of the movement has to do with the proliferation of working mothers: According to the most recent Labor Department statistics, 54% of women with children under 3 and more than two-thirds of women with children under 18 are now in the work force.
In a survey of 200 executives published last year by the personnel firm Robert Half International, 92% said they felt employees want a greater balance between families and careers. Reflecting these sentiments was a 1990 Gallup poll in which four out of five respondents agreed that employees should be allowed to take at least an unpaid parental leave to tend to a new baby or a sick child, and three out of four felt that employer should be required to maintain worker benefits during such a leave.
In an attempt to hold on to skilled workers, many employers are heeding the call.
"Among the larger companies, there's been a gradual voluntary increase in the number of companies offering leave, and a trend toward lengthening the leave," said Arlene Johnson,
director of work force research at the Conference Board, a business research group.
Unpaid leaves of six months or a year--with benefits and a job guarantee upon return--are no longer uncommon among Fortune 500 companies, she said, and three-month leaves have become standard. At International Business Machines, a leader in family benefits, new mothers can take up to three years unpaid maternity leave with benefits and a job guarantee if they agree to make themselves available for part-time work during the second and third year.
"What's starting to come into focus for companies is the business case for a good leave policy," Johnson said. "Why put people in a position where they have to quit a job to have a baby? Because in a career lifetime, a maternity leave is a small period of time."
While more large companies are offering longer leaves, the smaller firms--which together employ about half the women in the work force--offer little or no maternity leave unless it is required by law.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 41% of U.S. companies with 100 employees or more offered some form of maternity leave in 1989, up from 35% the year before, and the average leave being taken by their pregnant employees was a little more than five months, up from 4.4 months the year before.
But a 1990 survey of smaller establishments, also done by the bureau, found that only 19% of those firms offered maternity leave, and the average leave was far shorter than at larger firms--a little over three months.
Leave policies also vary from state to state, and California's workers are among the more fortunate. Federal law requires that pregnancy be treated as a disability, but not all states offer disability benefits, as California does.
Under state and federal law, women workers in California are eligible for paid pregnancy disability leave. California law also guarantees women an unpaid maternity leave of up to four months without fear of losing their jobs.
A new family leave law, applying only to companies with 50 workers or more, grants similar unpaid leave to workers, male or female, who need time off to care for a newborn or adopted baby or an ill or elderly relative.
It was California law that allowed Green in 1990 to collect $24,400 in damages from her old employer, who had limited her leave to six weeks. The commission ruled that, like all pregnant employees in this state, Green was entitled to up to four months unpaid leave while disabled.
But Green was among the lucky. Studies show that discrimination against pregnant women is still rife in many workplaces, despite legal prohibitions. In one analysis, covering three years of Equal Employment Opportunity Commission cases, the National Research Council found "significant compliance problems" with pregnancy anti-discrimination laws.
And in a separate study of employment discrimination cases in Ohio, two researchers at Wright State University found that new mothers were 10 times more likely to lose their jobs after maternity leaves than employees taking other kinds of medical leave.
Among the examples were a social worker who returned from maternity leave to find that her belongings had been packed in boxes, and a woman who was hired to replace a pregnant secretary, only to lose the job four years later when she got pregnant herself.
Green said that in retrospect, she "can understand why some employers are afraid to give people a lot of time off." Now a supervisor herself--she is an office manager in the legal department of a large insurance firm--she is familiar with the inconveniences that can be caused by the extended absence of an employee.
"But it's just the hardest thing in the world to come right back after you've had a baby," she said.
Besides the difficulty of finding quality child care and the sleepless nights spent caring for a newborn, parents feel a natural yearning to be with their children, especially during the first months after birth.
Arlene Eisenberg, Heidi E. Murkoff and Sandee E. Hathaway, in their guides to infant care, "What To Expect When You're Expecting" and "What To Expect the First Year," note that experts in child development usually suggest that working mothers delay a return to their jobs until they have bonded with their children.
This process, the authors say, is highly individual.
"Bonding can take three months . . . or it can take five or six," they write.
Despite these natural attachments, however, studies show that for a variety of reasons--ranging from economic necessity to career ambitions--85% of working women return to their jobs after maternity leave, according to Ellen Galinsky and Dana Friedman, co-presidents of the nonprofit Families and Work Institute.
"Maybe if the cost of living wasn't so high, we could afford the luxury (of a one-income household)," explained the 36-year-old Green, whose husband is a high school teacher and basketball coach.
Seven months ago, Green gave birth to her third child. This time, she stayed home until her disability payments ran out. Then, with the blessings of her boss--who was eager to hold onto an employee with 12 years experience--she used accrued vacation time to cut her workweek to four days for her first month back on the job.
"It worked out just about right," she said, "and it was nice to have that extra day with the baby. But it was also nice coming in to work and feeling back in the swing of things."