Q: In the next couple of months, my boss will be taking a several-month maternity leave, which will occur during the busiest part of the year for us. During her absence, I will assume the majority of her responsibilities, in addition to my current workload.

I feel I should be compensated for the additional work I will be expected to take on. How do I approach the topic with my employer? I have a good working relationship with my boss, and I don't want to disrupt that, but this is stressing me out big time.

A: It's been seven years since the Family and Medical Leave Act passed, but issues surrounding maternity leaves still remain uncharted terrain at many companies as co-workers tiptoe around the topic. The reality is that when one worker takes a leave for childbirth, to care for a sick relative or for a long vacation, often somebody else is asked to pick up the slack, frequently without compensation. The assumption is that you fill in for others and someday they will fill in for you.

Two experts we consulted had different views on the compensation question, but agreed there are steps the writer can take to make the situation more bearable.

Ellen Bravo, executive director of 9to5, the National Organization for Working Women, said well-managed companies generally have a maternity-leave planning process that involves some group discussion of how the work will be redistributed. If it hasn't happened at this firm, Bravo said, the letter writer is going to have to initiate it.

Bravo doesn't think it is inappropriate to ask for additional compensation when the supervisor is away. "You shouldn't feel like a beggar at the door," she said. "This is a reasonable adjustment of pay."

Bravo advised the writer to develop a strategy for handling the work while the boss is gone, including asking that a temporary worker be hired to handle some tasks and help ease the workload.

Virginia-based career adviser Jean Isler Stafford said the boss may fear that if she discusses the problem, she could be criticized by people who think mothers only belong at home, or who will view her as less committed to the employer.

"The boss probably doesn't want to magnify it because of all the gender issues," Stafford said. "It means we pretend that men and women are the same, that there are no differences. We walk around ignoring the obvious. It's politically incorrect to say anything because we still haven't gotten comfortable with it."

Stafford thinks it's out of line to ask for more money now and suggests that the worker focus instead on the career-development opportunity she's been granted because of the maternity leave. If she decides to broach the topic of additional compensation anyway, Stafford said, the letter writer should make clear that she fully supports her boss's maternity leave and that she is raising the question to help her maintain her own morale while she juggles a larger workload.

Q: My wife works for a highly rated public school system as a guidance counselor. The job is extraordinarily demanding and each year the demands grow--more reports, more meetings, more initiatives, etc. No management expert decides whether a task can be added to an already burdensome workload. New ideas are simply implemented by do-gooders and the staff is required to carry them out.

She works from 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. each day, and then does several hours of paperwork at home at night, as well as calls to parents. They hold long meetings to set educational plans for special-needs children, with minutes to be transcribed, typed and distributed. She has had to pull all-nighters to get all the letters of recommendations done.

The system has become irrational. How many hours of overtime are sufficient before a school employee can just say no? The union has not taken a stand on workload.

A: There's no disputing that many of the estimated 89,000 elementary and secondary school guidance counselors today are feeling stretched and overwhelmed. According to the American Counseling Association, the maximum suggested ratio of students to counselors is 250 students for each counselor, but the national average is almost double that level, at 561 students per counselor, according to the U.S. Department of Education and the counseling group.

"School budgets are really tight and they need to make tough decisions," said Joan Urbaniak, assistant director of the group's public policy group. She said school boards are trying to simultaneously reduce class sizes and construct new buildings to house the growing hordes of children. "The first place they cut is school counselors," she said.

In Maryland, the ratio of students to counselors is 503 to one; in Virginia, it's 366 to one; and in the District, it's 421 to one, the ACA said. California has the worst ratio, with 1,171 students for every counselor.

Urbaniak said the association is working to highlight the problem. But the most important thing counselors can do, she said, is lobby for themselves at the grass-roots level, including through their unions. Counselors need to force the issue with school superintendents and school boards, and enlist the help of schoolteachers, who are a much more numerous and politically powerful group, she added. They should make it clear that the emotional support counselors offer troubled children also helps them perform better in the classroom.

"States with high ratios have frequent violence," Urbaniak said. In Colorado, where the Columbine massacre occurred, there are 623 students for each counselor, and in Kentucky, where the Jonesboro shootings happened, the ratio is 565 to one.

Counseling, she said, is "a very stressful job, very stressful, so stressful that fewer and fewer people are going into the profession."