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Easing the Way Back: New Mothers, Old Jobs

March 01, 1987|NANCY YOSHIHARA | 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.

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