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Living our Values: Health & Medicine’s New Maternity Leave Policy

Ann Duffy
January 31, 2017
There's been a lot of talk lately about maternity leave policies in the U.S. We all know by now that America is behind the rest of the world when it comes to offering new moms (and dads) paid time off after the birth of a child. The Family and Medical Leave Act mandates 12 weeks of unpaid leave for new moms—but is applicable only to organizations with 50 or more employees.

I found out I was pregnant in November 2015, prompting me to read every news item related to maternity leave—many about how horribly we treat new moms in our society. So I decided it was time to try my best to update Health & Medicine's maternity policy.

I began by researching the policies of other progressive nonprofits. I was shocked at some of what I found. Organizations whose mission is based on helping women and children were totally lacking in support for the very mothers who work for them.

I saw the opportunity for Health & Medicine to be a leader in this area. Our mission is based on health equity, after all. So I began by answering any potential questions that might come up: How is a fair maternity leave policy an example of health equity? Can our small 15-person nonprofit afford it? How can I show that this proposal is not solely self- serving? Here was my reasoning:

1) It's what's best/healthiest for mother and baby.  It’s well known that breastfeeding is one of the most beneficial things you can do for your newborn. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends exclusively breastfeeding your baby for the first six months of life, at minimum. Newborns can feed as often as every two hours, so if I needed to return to work too quickly, not only would that mean I’d be pumping milk on the train on my way into work, but also during phone calls, lunch breaks, and likely throughout most staff meetings. Instead, I’d probably just pump less frequently and as a result, see my milk supply dwindle and my baby therefore forced to start formula well before she ever would had I stayed home with her, adding to my already abundant guilt for not giving her enough tummy time.  

Bonding. Is there anything more important or natural than bonding with your new child? Evidence not only suggests that quality bonding in the first stages of life can decrease stress, but it can also have an effect on the child’s health, decreasing the likelihood of disease, and boosting immunity, and eventually leading your child to a better, happier life.  

And speaking of a happier life, our society shouldn’t punish families for having a child. Anyone who’s ever had to miss a few paychecks can understand the stress caused by a decrease in income.  

2) We should be a leader in this area.

Paid leave is slowly gaining traction in a lot of the country (cities like New York and San Francisco come to mind). I felt that Health & Medicine take the lead on this issue since having a paid maternity/paternity policy is in line with our mission. It sends a message about what we care about. Other non-profits should be coming to us for advice on policy – not the other way around.

3) It is an investment in our staff and our future.

Good policies improve morale and decrease employee turnover. Studies have shown that employee turnover is more expensive than family leave resulting in costs like lost productivity during recruiting and training, cost to recruit, and we would very likely not have someone performing at my level by the end of three months. 

Also, maternity/paternity leave occurs rarely – it’s not (usually) a regular occurrence.
 
Having good personnel policies helps organizations recruit and retain better employees. For some people, weighing the benefits and policies of different organizations is sometimes just as important as comparing salaries.

Just as paid sick leave and paid vacation are an investment in the wellness of employees and allow them to perform at their best, so is paid maternity leave.  Maternity leave is for having a baby and recovering from childbirth and should not be counted as sick or vacation time. Sick time should be reserved for when parents or their children are sick and they do not have childcare.  

If organization’s care about the wellness of their employees, they should not be penalized for having a baby. Not having your sick and vacation time can contribute to being overworked, spreading illness at work, and increased stress. Having new mothers use sick and vacation time contributes to gender inequity. It allows men to have this time to relax and recover, but not women. Not only are women paid less on average, they have to face this too?

I could go on but I thought I’d presented a strong argument for a policy change.

Health & Medicine agreed. In June 2016, I’m proud to say that we adopted our new maternity/paternity leave policy. Health & Medicine now offers 12 weeks of paid leave to new mothers and fathers.

In July 2016 I gave birth to a healthy baby girl. My leave ended this past fall and I can unequivocally say that our new policy made a huge difference in my family’s life – I felt ready to return to work on firm ground - as compared to when I took unpaid leave during the birth of my first child in 2012.

Honestly, 12 weeks is not enough. But it’s a start. And I’m glad that Health & Medicine decided to take the lead on this issue and live its values.