Women Working During Pregnancy
Pregnant workers staying at jobs later
By: Debbie Kelley And Perry Swanson
Pregnant women and new mothers have embraced their jobs at unprecedented levels during the past several decades, working during pregnancy and returning to their jobs soon after giving birth.
Experts say the trend reflects better accommodation from employers for the demands of motherhood and women’s need to maintain an income that supports their families.
A study issued Monday by the U.S. Census Bureau chronicles dramatic changes from 1961 to 2003 in how women have balanced their professional lives with motherhood. Among the findings:
- More women are working during pregnancy: 67 percent of first time mothers surveyed from 2001 to 2003 compared with 44 percent of first-time mothers surveyed from 1961 to 1965.
- Women are working at later stages of pregnancy. In the earlier survey, 35 percent of women quit work one month or less before the birth. The figure jumped to 80 percent four decades later.
- Among women who worked during pregnancy, 58 percent of survey respondents from 2000 to 2002 had returned to work three months following the birth. That compares with 16.5 percent who had returned to work after three months in 1961 to 1965.
Pregnant women and new mothers were two groups Congress had in mind in 1993 when lawmakers passed the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, guaranteeing up to 12 weeks annually of unpaid leave for childbearing or caring for an ill family member. The Department of Labor estimates 6.1 million workers used the act in 2005, but it doesn’t distinguish the workers who used leave for a pregnancy.
The shift toward more work before and after pregnancy doesn’t necessarily mean women want to spend more time on the job, said Glenn Stanton, director of global family formation studies for Focus on the Family, a Colorado Springs-based Christian ministry.
“They don’t mind as much working up as close as possible to the birth because of the need to add more money to the household money jar in hopes of being able to stay home longer with their baby, once born,” Stanton said in an e-mail. “A new mother’s heart, which is now bigger than they ever imagined it could be, is deep and fused with her new baby, and this far eclipses any heart they have for their work. This is why so many women are being incredibly creative in arranging workfriendly home situations.”
New moms are more likely to return to their jobs if employers are willing to be flexible and support a balance between work and family, said Kara Roberts, vice president of local industry for the Colorado Springs Economic Development Corp.
“The pull to be with your child is pretty strong, so being in the right environment where I knew there was flexibility and I was given ample maternity leave was a big factor in my decision to come back to work,” said Roberts, who had her first child in June 2006 and is due to deliver her second child in May.
Although the EDC, a nonprofit organization that helps recruit and retain companies, is not bound by the Family and Medical Leave Act because it has fewer than 50 employees, Roberts was allowed to take 12 weeks of maternity leave for both pregnancies. She could also use accumulated vacation times and sick days to receive a paycheck for part of the leave.
Roberts is preparing for this year’s absence by devising a plan with her 13 co-workers to cover her duties while she’s gone. Upon returning, Roberts knows she’ll have an adjustable work schedule if she needs it.
“The EDC trusts I will use my time wisely and I’ll accomplish what I said I would get done, and that doesn’t always fall between 8 and 5,” she said.
Some local companies offer more familyfriendly incentives for childbearing women as an employee recruitment and retention tool. T-Mobile, for example, has an expectant mom parking lot, T. Rowe Price has nursing rooms and USAA insurance, an on-site child care center.
“Companies are making an effort to make it as easy as possible for their new moms,” Roberts said.
Companies, particularly small businesses, are often put in a difficult situation because employers cannot, by law, ask a pregnant employee whether she will return to work, said local human resource consultant N.E. Sam Sargent, owner of Human Resource Asset Management Systems Ltd.
Small companies have fewer options for covering a job during maternity leave, he said, and may try to indirectly root out the answer. That puts the woman in a precarious position, Sargent said.
“Sometimes, they have to say, ‘I’ll be back,’ knowing they may not, because they want to maintain their job,” he said.
The length of maternity leave varies according to the needs of the employer and the employee, he added.
For many women, though, there’s little choice in returning to work after having a baby, in the age of dual-income households.
“A lot of it is economically driven because the employee can’t afford to miss the paychecks,” Sargent said, “but some companies allow workers to bank vacation time and carry it forward, so they can save up for maternity leave. I’ve had clients who have employees return in a few days, others take anywhere from four to 12 weeks of leave.”
Among women in the Census surveys, 83 percent from 2000 to 2002 returned to the employer they had before the birth. About 91 percent said their pay level was the same after the birth as it was before, while 7 percent said they got paid more.
Maternity leave and women not returning to work after childbirth, Sargent said, contribute to the suppression of wages for women, who often earn less than their male counterparts.
One reason is women leaving the work force, he said. Another is that women are disinclined to travel after giving birth.
Tell us: Did you work during your pregnancy?