Amy Joyce
Life at Work

Employers' Little Dividend

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By Amy Joyce
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 25, 2007

Earlier this month it was Annys. Next is Cecilia. Then it's my turn. Karen comes after me, then Lori, in October.

All working in the Business section. All with babies due within months -- or weeks -- of one another.

Plus five men in the section with wives who are due (or just had a baby).

That's a lot of parental leave for a staff of 57 to handle. As we waddle off for weeks or months, our bosses must scramble to find other people to do our jobs or risk leaving some tasks undone.

Some employers, however, see an upside to this disruption. It gives them an opportunity to train workers in new skills, observe employees in different roles and test potential hires.

Dan Baum came around to that way of thinking, but only after a rough 2004.

Back then five women at DBC Public Relations, his 14-person Georgetown firm, went on maternity leave. Baum found his generous three months of paid leave was a major financial burden on the firm. It also was a stretch for the employees who were filling in, and revenue dropped for that period.

When the new moms came back, "we had to build the company back up," he said.

Baum realized he needed to have a more specific plan next time. "It used to be we picked up the extra slack, no vacations, work till 9 p.m. Now it's systemized in terms of person-hours and what needs to be replaced," he said.

For instance, when his employees can't fill in, Baum hires an extra person as backup. "We might lose a little profitability, because they leave and we have a second person, but we've built that into the business model."

Baum also tries to talk early to people about stepping into new roles, to give them time to prepare months before new mothers take their leave. Jessica Kenderian, usually an account director, took on a vice president's role in February when her boss went on maternity leave. Kenderian agreed to do the job in the summer, as soon as her boss announced she was pregnant. "It's a great opportunity and is not only an opportunity for me, but for the whole team," she said. "Everyone else has to take on more work that I'd be doing. It just trickles down."

District-based Blackboard (where employees have a saying: "We make software and babies") also tries to use these leaves as an opportunity for others to try new things. The company "offers an opportunity for others to step in and learn new roles and training -- when that individual comes back, the goal is that we haven't missed a beat," said Tim Hill, president of professional education solutions. "And now we have more assets because more people are trained" in each job.

Because each woman at the 825-person educational software company has a different job, it's impossible to create a company-wide policy explaining how to fill in for those on leave, said Mary Good, senior vice president of human resources and facilities at Blackboard. Good goes on the road next month to help fill in for a woman who does international work and is pregnant and can't travel. "We get exposure in something we normally wouldn't get exposure to," she said.

Companies are restricted to what they can change while an employee is on leave, but that doesn't mean they can't consider it. Rebecca McClaflin, a human resources manager at Wells Fargo, said leave often gives managers time to think about how teams and departments are structured. "We see the team in a new way or new light. And think maybe we should revisit how we have things structured, all the while remembering we need to bring the absent person back up to speed," she said. "And we can't restructure before that person comes back."

But that doesn't mean those weeks while the parent is gone can't be used as a sort of "tryout" time for other workers. They may not (and probably won't) get the parent's job, but they can be considered for a future promotion if they do well.

Employees' jobs are generally protected while on parental leave. "Employers who choose to terminate an employee while they are on pregnancy leave need to be able to justify that the decision was in no way connected to the employee's pregnancy -- that is a difficult burden," said Deborah Weinstein, an employment lawyer who teaches "The Law at Work" at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. The law states that, among other things, employers must hold open a job for a pregnancy-related absence the same length of time jobs are held for employees on sick or disability leave. (Pregnancy discrimination law can be found at http://www.eeoc.gov/types/pregnancy.html.)

A company does not have to provide maternity leave. It is simply held to rules governed by the Family and Medical Leave Act, which 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. 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. If a company offers paid sick leave, employees may be able to use six or so weeks of that as disability leave after giving birth.

As for us at The Post, let's just say our busy colleagues are excited for this year's class of interns to start -- we're lucky enough to get one extra reporting intern this year.

Those interns, who usually absorb the pain of their colleagues' summer vacations, may thank us pregnant women after they spend their summers gaining more experience than ever before.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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