Time with baby not always guaranteed

Every time Ann talks about her second pregnancy and maternity leave she relives a nightmare. The former full-time litigator graduated from law school, clerked for a federal court judge and worked for two prominent law firms before she had two girls, less than two years apart.

The first time she announced she was pregnant, the firm’s partners were congratulatory and supportive. The second time, though, Ann, who didn’t want to use her name because of fear of retribution, believes they were simply annoyed.

She did everything smart women do before they go on maternity leave. She created a plan for how her work would be completed while she was gone. She communicated with the management both before and during her maternity leave and was available for questions on cases. She worked up until the day she delivered. And yet, when she went back to work after her second maternity leave, she says, she was frozen out."It was terrible. Literally none of the male partners said hello to me in the hallway. None. I’d say,‘hey, … how are you doing?’ And he wouldn’t even look up. I quit four months later.”

Ann’s is just one story about how the demands of parenthood and a career can conflict.

Despite the partners’ animosity, Ann received a paid three-month maternity leave, which makes her luckier than thousands of workers in Illinois. The national Family and Medical Leave Act guarantees eligible workers up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave each year to care for a newborn or newly adopted child. However, nearly 40 percent of workers are not eligible for leave because they work for companies with fewer than 50 workers. And many more simply can’t afford to take an unpaid leave.

The National Partnership for Women and Families is lobbying in Washington, D.C., for policies that would extend leaves and create paid parental leaves.

“Workplaces are outdated,” says Kate Kahan, director of Work and Family for the group."In 78 percent of today’s families both parents are working for pay. That fact alone is a shift. Our rules and our workplaces haven’t caught up with that shift.”

Laws concerning maternity and paternity leaves vary widely according to state and from employer to employer. In its 2005 report,"Expecting Better: A State by State Analysis of Parental Leave Programs,” the National Partnership for Women and Children assigned Illinois a grade of C- on its laws and policies related to parental leave, citing the fact that the state offers no laws guaranteeing job protection or benefits for new parents.

In fact, the report found that no state guarantees all new parents both job protection and benefits. No state received a perfect grade. Michigan and Indiana received D- grades, while Wisconsin received a C.

The Illinois advocacy group, Women Employed, backed a measure in Springfield this past spring that offered a modest wage replacement for workers taking a family medical leave, maxing out at $380 a week. The costs would have been shared by workers and businesses. The bill died in the Labor Committee.

Melissa Josephs, director of Equal Opportunity Policy at Women Employed, says lawmakers were skittish because Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s plan to pay for health insurance with a gross receipts tax already has employers upset."The bill’s sponsor felt that it was such a bad time to introduce something that’s asking employers to pay even a penny because of all the fighting going on down there now.”

State Rep. Jack Franks of Woodstock is more enthusiastic about his legislation. He introduced House Bill 374, a Family and Medical Leave bill that contains provisions similar to those in the federal act, but would extend unpaid leave to in-laws (mothers, fathers, sons and daughters-in-law) to care for members of their families. The bill passed the Illinois House this spring and may be considered by the Senate this fall.

Tips for moms

1 Gather the facts and experience of others before considering a maternity leave. Knowledge is powerful.

2 Create a vision for what you want and plan of action for how to get it. To get started you need to know your company’s family and medical leave policy. Some important questions to keep in mind include: How much time off do to they allow you to take? Are you paid for some or all of it? Can you extend your leave with paid time off (vacation) you have accrued? Do any of your benefits change while you are on leave or does coverage remain the same? If your employer has a 401K, can you continue to contribute to it while you are on leave? What paperwork, if any, is required?

Consider what happens when the leave is over. Does your company offer have a flexible work policy?

3 Become an active participant in the planning for how the work gets done while you are on leave. Offer solutions and don’t be afraid to think outside the box. For example, Mom Corps provides family leave coverage with experienced professionals across all business disciplines to step in while you step out.

4 Expand your network to include professional women who can provide ideas, support and be role models. There may be groups of women in your company or subgroups of a professional organization you already belong to. Starting this month, Mom Corps is hosting a series of Coffee& Career workshops in Chicago for professional moms to network and learn strategies on how to get it all and maintain a work/life balance.

SOURCE: Dianne B. Michael, regional vice president of Mom Corps, in Chicago. To find out more about Mom Corps, go to www.momcorps.com.

Joan Drummond Olson is a freelance writer and producer. She lives in Elmhurst with her husband and two sons.

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