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Too Often, Family Leave Leaves Much To Be Desired

By Amy Joyce
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 27, 2006

People talk about "maternity leave": a break from work after having or adopting a baby.

But does it really exist?

There is no nationwide policy that promises all parents time off after the birth of a child for care, recovery or bonding purposes. And there is no nationwide policy that provides paid leave for new parents. Therefore, many new parents must cobble together enough money and time to spend several weeks with newborns.

The Family and Medical Leave Act requires companies with 50 or more employees to provide 12 weeks of unpaid leave to those who have worked there for at least 12 months -- and the time can be used for the birth of a child or tending to a serious illness, your own or that of a close relative. Some states have more generous laws. But mostly, maternity or paternity leave is up to a company or an employee's negotiating skills.

Dineen Pashoukos Wasylik is an attorney and a mom for the second time. She appeared in The Post's pages this month after the Transportation Security Administration banned liquids on flights. Wasylik had to pump breast milk in an airport bathroom and then pack it on ice and check it on a recent business trip a couple of days after the alleged terror plot was uncovered in Britain.

But Wasylik is used to figuring out how to make work and family, well, work. She used to be an attorney in Washington, but after her first son (now 3) was born, she and her husband moved to Florida to be near his parents. They knew the work hours would be easier and the cost of living lower.

Wasylik switched to a smaller firm for about half the pay. A few months into her new job, she became pregnant. The baby was due just shy of her one-year anniversary.

That meant Wasylik would not be eligible for the federally mandated leave. But she figured it out: She took her entire two weeks of vacation after her second son was born at the end of 2005 and another two weeks at the beginning of 2006, and that brought her to one year of service. Then she took 12 weeks of unpaid leave.

The leave was "extraordinarily difficult," she said. She and her husband, who is also an attorney, had saved up for it. But with a mortgage, student loans and day care for her older child, she had just $20 in her checking account when she returned to work. Any The profit from selling their house in Arlington -- $20,000 -- was gone.

Even with the pay cut to move south, "I make a lot of money, still," she said. "I don't know how people who make less make it. We are barely making it. I'm still cutting coupons."

The United States lags behind most of the world in providing paid parental leave. Of 168 countries in a 2004 Harvard University study, 163 had some form of paid maternity leave. The United States, in other words, is on par with Lesotho, Papua New Guinea and Swaziland when it comes to maternity leave. Australia is the only other industrialized nation that does not offer paid leave for new mothers, but it does offer 12 months of unpaid leave, the study reported.

"These protections are so limited, it is just another indication of how out of sync our nation's workplace policies are with today's working women," said Debra Ness, president of the National Partnership for Women & Families. Founded as the Women's Legal Defense Fund, the nonprofit organization drafted the FMLA legislation, which became law in 1993.

Shelley Johansson ran into another issue many women encounter. She was PWI -- Pregnant While Interviewing. She was a new resident of Johnstown, Pa., a town east of Pittsburgh, thanks to her husband's new job as a professor, and she became pregnant right before her ideal job opened. "This was the one job in Johnstown that not only was I qualified for, but I really wanted," she said. The job, communications director for a nonprofit group, was a perfect match for her. Those who interviewed her thought the same. They offered her the position.

She knew legally she didn't have to say anything about the pregnancy but thought it was best to be honest. She told the director, who expressed only happiness about it. "It was then that I knew I came to the right place."

Granted, her three months of leave were mostly unpaid, but her husband's income and benefits carried them through the leave. Her daughter is now almost 3 years old.

"One of the advantages of working in the nonprofit world, generally speaking, is people realize they can't compensate you adequately with money," she said. "So they try to give you flexibility and less tangible benefits. Which is one of the reasons why I wanted the job."

Karen Folster Lesperance was one of 400 attorneys at a Boston firm. She discovered that even with a reduced-hours arrangement, she was not home with her daughter enough. So she and her husband moved to her hometown in Upstate New York. She took a 60 percent pay cut to work at a smaller, less demanding firm. She decided to be upfront with the firm that was offering her a job. During the interview process, she asked about leave policies and told them she expected to have a second child in a year or two.

Two months after she started working, she became pregnant.

She wanted to prove herself as a good employee before she told anyone. So she waited until she was 19 weeks along, then told the managing partner, who is also her mentor. Being a small firm, it didn't have a leave policy.

The FMLA didn't apply because the firm had fewer than 50 employees. Even if the firm were bigger, she still hadn't been there a year, so no FMLA leave.

She ended up negotiating eight weeks of paid and six weeks of unpaid leave. After the paid leave, she had to pay for benefits through COBRA, an extension of company health insurance. Between that and other expenses, she used up all the savings from the house they sold in Massachusetts. "I really wish I could have stayed home longer," she says now. She was with her first child for seven months after birth. Her son got her for only three months.

"I have to say I'm a little jealous of friends I have in Canada who can take a year -- not necessarily with pay, but with benefits and job-back guarantees," she said.

With no national leave policy, most women wait until they are part of the workforce, assess what the culture is like and what their benefits are, and try to establish a relationship with their supervisor "so that there is a context in which they can have this conversation and negotiate for the best possible leave," said Ness, of the National Partnership for Women & Families.

That's not so easy for one Bethesda resident who is pregnant -- after an April job offer from the government but before her security clearance has gone through.

"I'm reluctant to get in touch with HR. I know it would be illegal for them to rescind the offer, but I'm concerned it will come up in some other way because of a technicality," she said. "I'm just hoping for that basic three-month period. Even unpaid."

Join Amy from 11 a.m. to noon Tuesday athttp://washingtonpost.comto discuss your life at work. You can e-mail her atlifeatwork@washpost.com. Hear her on Washington Post radio (107.7 FM, 1500 AM) at 12:50 p.m. Mondays.

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