Beyond the FMLA

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Retaining top talent after that talent has had a baby can be a challenge, so it’s worth taking a look at how your company supports new mothers as they’re transitioning back to work.

The federal Family and Medical Leave Act requires employers to allow 12 weeks of job-protected unpaid maternity—and paternity—leave for all genders. This is one of the shortest required leaves in all industrial nations—and it applies only to businesses with more than 50 employees and employees who have worked a certain number of hours in the previous 12 months. In addition, the United States is one of the only countries that doesn’t require employers to provide paid maternity leave.

Some businesses and individual states are looking to change that for themselves. Review the parental leave policies at your company and consider whether it’s feasible to offer paid leave for a number of weeks, allow unpaid leave longer than 12 weeks, or offer paid paternity leave. While paid leave can be expensive, the cost of replacing talent can be even more considerable.

According to the Department of Labor, the percentage of mothers who work peaked in the late ’90s to early 2000s, but in the past few years that number has leveled off and even begun to decline. This isn’t good news for moms seeking ambitious careers—or for employers looking to hold on to their female talent.

The reasons mothers don’t return to the workforce are varied. Childcare costs are one of the most significant, taking from 7 to 40 percent of a working mother’s income. A more mobile society has led to fewer people living near relatives who might provide free childcare.  When a workplace is unable to accommodate working mothers’ needs, employees will often be pushed out of the workforce or driven to look for a company that’s more supportive.

But there’s a lot that companies can do to create more mom-friendly environments—and avoid losing strong talent. Here are a few ways workplaces can support working moms, from pregnancy through their baby’s infanthood and beyond.

Maternity Support
Whether it’s offered through a wellness vendor, your employee assistance program, or your health plan, a maternity support program can show future moms that a company is committed to keeping their new moms around and supports their decision to have a family.

Doctor visits may be common during pregnancy, and a maternity support program can provide extra resources for a first mom that go beyond just medical management. Setting up a plan for maternity leave—and return to work—is critical during the latter half of a worker’s pregnancy. Be sure to plan for any unexpected health issues that could arise, such as the need for bed rest before birth, and determine how to hand off responsibilities.

Back to Work
Welcoming a new mother back to the office can be a key moment for employee retention. The reception a woman receives in her workplace may make or break her decision to stay.

Consider working with the mom on building up to the hours she was working pre-baby. This can provide a more gradual adjustment.

Make sure your office complies with the part of the FMLA that covers breastfeeding mothers: workplaces must offer time off and a private place to pump breast milk during the workday (a bathroom doesn’t count). Creating a welcoming space for nursing moms to express their milk shows a company has a supportive and welcoming environment for parents.

Some companies, such as Patagonia, which is known for its ahead-of-their-time benefits, offer on-site day care. For Patagonia, this has resulted in 100 percent of those female employees who have taken maternity leave returning to work, and an estimated 11 percent return on investment. While it’s a rare perk, on-site day care can attract strong talent: it reduces the time parents spend driving kids to day care and provides an affordable day-care option.

Flexibility is something you learn as a parent, and it’s something employers should learn to integrate as well. For example, does your paid time off (PTO) policy require employees to take full days off at a time? Consider adjusting this so parents can take half days instead, or even a couple of hours off to deal with doctor’s appointments, illnesses, or piano recitals. This type of flexibility can reduce stress for parents who may feel pulled between job and family, and can increase their loyalty to a company.

When feasible, allow more flexible work hours to let a working momshift her hours to fit the bell schedule at her children’s school. A flexible work schedule tends to make employees more productive in the office and give them greater peace of mind, since they’re able to meet both their professional and parental obligations.

Remember that family leave and flexible PTO or work hours must be applied to all employees, not just new parents, and will likewise benefit all employees, create greater goodwill for your company, and hopefully improve employee retention.

Dana Lester has a bachelor’s degree in nutrition and dietetics. She is passionate about holistic wellness, eating fruit, and writing.


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