Thursday, November 11, 2010

Are You Putting Off Having a Baby in This Bad Job Market?

Anyone who has ever been pregnant on the job knows it's not easy. You try not to barf in meetings. Your feet get so swollen you can't get on any shoes besides your Nikes, and those make a less-than-professional impression.

In the early part of your pregnancy, you can't think of eating without getting queasy. When that passes, you can't stop eating.

Some co-workers, who think they're so darn funny, can't decide which is bigger: You or the Goodyear blimp. Other colleagues give you disapproving looks when the fatigue hits so hard you sit slumped in your chair, considering whether you can make it to the bathroom for the one zillionth time that day.

And yet, thousands of pregnant women go to work every day, giving the job 100 percent, even if they feel like crap and raging hormones have them considering stapling a co-worker to the wall.

But how tough must it be to be pregnant when the economy is so bad? I imagine a lot of us never stopped to consider the extra stress that is being placed on these mothers. It's a topic I decided to explore for my Gannett/ column...

Taking maternity leave is often fraught with anxiety for many working women.

They wonder how much time off can they afford to take. Will taking longer than the standard six or eight weeks hurt their career?

But in these unsettling economic times, that anxiousness has gotten worse for some women, who fear they may be fired because of their pregnancies or lose their jobs while on maternity leave and be unable to find other positions, says Roberta Matuson, president of Human Resource Solutions in Northampton, Mass.

While federal and state laws protect women from such action by an employer — as they do for disabled workers — the harsh reality is that many women don't fight back legally because the battle could stretch on for a long time, she says.

In addition, many women fear that getting another job while filing a complaint on a previous employer would be very difficult.

"The reality is that a woman could lose her job while on maternity leave or when she returns from maternity leave because they employer could say she was going to be laid off anyway," Matuson says.

Another reason working women may feel extra stress while pregnant is that they simply can't afford to be away from work. Companies have trimmed maternity leave benefits — or eliminated them — as they seek to trim costly employee benefits.

Rebekah Goode-Peoples, 32, was a pregnant English teacher at a private school in Savannah, Ga., and says she assumed she got paid maternity leave. Then, she discovered she was required to use her sick days and vacation time for everything from doctor's appointments to time off after her baby arrived.

Weeks of bed rest her doctor ordered quickly sapped her vacation time, and the school administration denied colleagues' requests to donate their unused time off to her. She did receive short-term disability pay after 10 days, she says, but the amount wasn't enough to alleviate financial constraints.

"My husband was in grad school, so I was the only one working," Goode-Peoples says. "If it had not been for my mother-in-law giving us some money, I would have had to go back after three weeks."

Since then, Goode-Peoples and her husband found jobs in Atlanta, and with her current position she made sure she had paid maternity leave before accepting the job. She says she believes the reason her Savannah employer was so strict about time off for doctor's appointments — even though she says she put in many unpaid hours every day grading papers — was because the school was taking a economic hit as parents withdrew their children from the school.

At $20,000 a year tuition, many parents couldn't afford it anymore, she says.

"If this is happening to me, an experienced teacher with a master's degree, what is happening to other women" who don't have that kind of job? Goode-Peoples says. "I have a friend who is a CPA and a lawyer, and she says she absolutely won't get pregnant now because jobs are so up in the air."

Another working woman who has felt the economic pinch of maternity leave is Danielle Welsh, 28, a cashier for a car dealership in Detroit.

Declaring bankruptcy only weeks before she delivered her daughter, Welsh says she had supplemental insurance to help pay for her maternity leave, but that didn't help enough.

When she returned from eight weeks of maternity leave, she actually owed her company money.

That's because the employer continued to pay her health insurance, and she found out she owed about $750. She has worked out a deal with her company to get about $100 a week in take-home pay while the rest has gone to pay back her insurance.

Welsh says her employer has been supportive of her, and she never worried about losing her job while she was away.

"My job is an easy job to fill, but no one really wants it because they don't like what I do. I spend all day on the phone and dealing with customers," she says. "Sure, I would have loved to have taken more time off to be with my daughter, but my husband and I are in debt up to our eyeballs."

For women like Welsh, that financial difficulty may continue. A University of Massachusetts-Amherst study, recently found that working mothers at the lower end of the earnings scale have the biggest loss in hourly pay — what's become known as the "motherhood penalty."

The study found that while women earning larger salaries often postponed having children and developed their careers first, they also could afford to pay for child care that would help them concentrate more on their careers once they returned to work. Mothers earning less were less likely to be able to hold onto stable jobs because they were forced to quit when child care didn't work out or a family health crisis occurred.

That career instability led to lower-wage jobs and even employers being wary of hiring them, the study found.

Matuson says it's important that working women develop a game plan when they become pregnant, which can help ease the stress and lessen the effect on their careers. Among her suggestions:

• Don't tell until it's necessary. "The minute you tell an employer you're pregnant, they're going to be wondering how they're going to cover the time you're going to be gone, and how this is going to impact the work," she says. "It's a sad fact, but sometimes women miscarry. So, I would just wait to tell until you absolutely have to."

• Stay professional. Keep the talk about nurseries, ultrasound photos and baby names out of the of the office. "You're getting paid to work," Matuson says. "And believe me, nobody wants to hear about your pregnancy. You're not the first person to give birth. All they care about is that maybe you're starting to slack off and they're going to have to pick up your work."

• Plan ahead. "Lots of babies decide to arrive early, so don't put off finishing your work or planning how your work will be covered until the last minute," she says. "Train your replacement early."

• Stay connected. "In this economy, I think it's especially important that you stay in close contact with your boss when you're on maternity leave," she says. "Send him or her an e-mail when you can. A lot of women say they're coming back from maternity leave, but then they don't. So make it a point to stay in touch with the boss."



Kevin H - Supplemental Maternity Insurance said...

Most employers in the U.S. do not offer paid maternity leave due to costs. Many women assume otherwise, and find themselves in a financial bind - especially if complications translate into extra time missed from work.

Women should ask their employers to make voluntary supplemental insurance available, and purchase the coverage before getting pregnant.

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