Maternity Leave: Read Your Rights

Babygate_New_CoverBabygate: What You Really Need to Know about Pregnancy and Parenting in the American Workplace is the brainchild of three women—Dina Bakst, Phoebe Taubman, and Elizabeth Gedmark. The women all work together at A Better Balance (ABB), an organization founded by Bakst that is dedicated to addressing work-family drama and strengthening caregivers’ legal protections.  The women behind ABB began to take note of increasingly alarming issues among parents in the workplace—especially those who were low-wage workers—and they decided to write a book to educate, inform, and empower working moms, dads, and soon-to-be parents. Here, Bakst, Taubman, and Gedmark chat about the book’s significance and intentions.

Can you start by telling me about ABB’s origin and the evolution of the book, which is so inherently related to your work at the organization?

Dina Bask: We are all attorneys who came out of the women’s rights movement. We had all worked on a range of women’s issues. From our personal lives as parents and from our professional work on issues particularly affecting lower-wage women, we began to see the connection with and the need to advance stronger laws and policies for pregnant women, new mothers, and caregivers more broadly defined. The women’s movement at the time had not been really focusing on the issues around work and family, and we saw addressing these issues as sort of the critical next step in the women’s rights movement.

You note in the preface to Babygate that there’s an abundance of information on everything from caring for your newborn to post-partum weight loss, but there’s actually very little thoroughly addressing the legal rights of an expecting or new parent. Why do you think this is the case?

Bask: There’s very little about how to protect your paycheck. It’s important that that’s given adequate attention as more women are breadwinners in their family, and they care about keeping their jobs and about advancing in their jobs…Broadly speaking, there’s a tremendous amount of confusing information and misinformation out there…You could find one piece of advice, and then another could say it slightly differently. It’s a complicated web of rights, and sometimes there’s no one single answer. While not trying to write a legal treatise, we wanted to find a way to present the whole picture to folks.

Elizabeth Gedmark: I was really excited about the project. I had talked to many people having trouble at work through our free Families at Work Legal Clinic, and I was starting to hear the same questions over and over again. I knew the public was not educated on these issues. There’s a lot of confusion about even really basic rights, like the fact that you can’t be fired just because you are pregnant.

Phoebe Taubman: We really tried to make this a resource with expanded opportunities for people to go into their own state in the appendix, where we have each state mapped out with resources and websites…We wanted to have as much as possible in one place so that people could have a one-stop shop to research these issues for themselves.

Yes, it’s great and comprehensive—like a Zagat guide! How would you both say that New York State and NYC, in particular, are doing on these issues?

Bask: That’s a loaded question.

Well, this book is obviously for the whole nation, but your work at ABB is based in NYC.

Bask: We are ear to the ground, and we have the free legal clinic. Because we’re here, we’re able to advocate more directly on public policy reforms on a local and state level. Mayor Bloomberg recently signed the NYC Pregnant Worker’s Fairness Act into law. It’s a groundbreaking law in the sense that it guarantees workers in employment centers with four or more employees reasonable accommodations for needs related to pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions.

What are you encouraging expecting and new parents to do once they are armed with accurate information? What does simply knowing one’s rights in the workplace (as far as the issues at hand are concerned) accomplish?

Gedmark: Knowing your rights means empowerment. Going into a negotiation or discussion with your boss after you’ve done your homework and understand what you are entitled to can make all the difference in the world. It means you’ll be more confident and will have the credibility to ask for what you need. I also think that it translates to other arenas—if you can stand up to your boss, then you can use those same skills to advocate for your child at school or for your community with elected officials. This form of education is an incredibly powerful tool.

Any advice for fathers who have been stigmatized at work for taking time off after their baby was born?

Gedmark: Talk to other men at work who have successfully taken time off of work for caregiving—what advice do they have? To some extent, my advice is the same for men and women: come to your boss with a plan about how you will make it work (who will take over projects, how involved do you want to be, etc.). This will reassure everyone at work that you are on top of things—we give extensive tips on this in Babygate.

Taubman: I’ve always thought it would be great to have consciousness-raising groups among men coming together in workplaces and communities to stand up as a group rather than as individuals. As our materials say, these are not individual problems. These are collective problems.

Bask: Also, under the FMLA, if men do take advantage of their leave, and they’re retaliated against, there are protections for them, and they should call our hotline.

If you could wave a magic wand and change the law books and government policies, what would be the three laws or policies you would implement for helping pregnant women and new parents in the workplace?

Bask: I think we need quality, affordable childhood care for everyone. Though not at the heart of what we do, it’s critical. And strong anti-discrimination protections, for pregnant workers and caregivers. The fourth would be laws and policies that really allow and support workers to work in a flexible way that both meets the needs of employees and employers.

Gedmark: It’s really difficult to choose just three, since there’s so much work to be done! However, if I had a magic wand, then I would pass the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (PWFA), create a nation-wide family leave insurance system, and expand nurse-family partnerships to cover more families in poverty.

Bask: There’s overwhelming data—gobs of data—that shows providing workplace flexibility is good for the bottom line.