I was at spin class a few weekends ago and was talking to one of my spin friends, a woman who was just returning to her work-outs after having a baby. I asked her how things were going at work. She told me that it was hard to leave at 5 pm to relieve the nanny, she felt resentment from some coworkers, and was concerned they were holding it against her that she had taken time off and now needed to work less than she had before.
As an employment lawyer I’ve lived this issue from both sides. I hear from employees (and their counsel) about the accommodations required by law and how my clients didn’t meet them. Then I hear from the employers who struggle to make those accommodations and then deal with the related fallout. It was with this dual perspective that my friend and I were able to have an honest conversation about the challenges facing both employers and employees. Here are some of my takeaways.
Rights for Pregnant Women and New Moms
- Pregnant women and new moms have lots of rights, including the right to take time off, the right to retain medical benefits, the right to reinstatement, and the right to lactation accommodation upon return.
- Many women work in places where they need to assert those rights, and they should. Employers who do not meet their legal obligations, do so at their own risk.
- Employers also need to ensure that requests for accommodation are met with empathy (as opposed to frustration) for the women who are entitled to them.
- Too many women face obstacles for just trying to take care of themselves. That isn’t fair.
Rights for Employees Who Cover for Them
- Often meeting the legal obligations is the easy part. The harder part is figuring out what an employer should do about the very real resentment that others feel for having to cover for pregnant women and new moms.
- We’ve all seen some pregnant women “do it all” and work 100% up to the minute they give birth. We’ve seen others answering emails and phone calls from the hospital.
- But we’ve also heard pregnant women blame mistakes on “pregnancy brain” and let others pick up the slack; take time off for medical reasons in places that appear to be more like a vacation; and pass off work priorities to colleagues who are already at or beyond capacity.
- Working with someone who is pregnant, or on maternity leave, or is working at limited capacity upon return, can put real pressure on the team. Many of those team members also have families and are struggling for balance.
- Yet, to acknowledge the reality of the inconvenience of accommodations and the resulting resentment is not only politically incorrect, it comes off as anti-woman and can create a risk of discrimination claims.
So getting back to my friend, what should she do given these dual realities? The suggestion I had was simple. I asked her if she had thanked the people who had covered for her. She thought it about it and said “probably not as much as I should have.”
When I saw her the next week at spin she told me that she had thought a lot about our conversation, and had made a conscious effort to thank everyone who had (and still was) helping her. She was met with a lot of warmth, and somehow, the resentment seems to have faded.
My main takeaway – there are two sides to this story and neither can be ignored. On the one hand, a little empathy and understanding is helpful when mixed in with meeting legal obligations. On the other hand, a little gratitude goes a long way.