Three days into her job as an assistant professor at the University of Denver, Jennifer Greenfield was admitted to the hospital and warned that she could have a preterm birth. Her water broke at 32 weeks, and her twin boys were born at 33 weeks.
“Thankfully at DU, we have paid leave from the day we start, so I was able to take time off work and be in the hospital with my boys in the NICU,” says Greenfield. “But as I was sitting there, I saw all these other moms and their kids next to mine. They would come in at 7:30 in the morning and then by 8:15, they were leaving, and I realized, they’re still working. They just gave birth and they are back at work. Meanwhile, the nurses were talking to me about how important it was that I hold my kids as long as I could.”
That’s when Greenfield became interested in family leave law and began her own research. Now, she testifies in state hearings to help pass legislation that would provide paid leave for Colorado families.
According to the National Partnership for Women and Families, the Colorado workforce is growing: Sixty-nine percent of all Colorado households with children have two parents with paying jobs; women make up almost half of Colorado’s work force and more than one-fourth of its business owners. They are working after their workday, driving after their commute, getting up early after staying up late, and paying extra expenses after unpaid time off.
In the middle of it all, they’re trying not to get sick, too—Greenfield confirms that only about 60 percent of the Colorado workforce is eligible for unpaid leave, and less than 15 percent receive paid leave.
If you’re an expectant parent who plans to go back to work after the birth of your child, here are some guidelines for how to transition and what you can expect.
The Big Reveal
A recent study by Bright Horizons showed that nearly twice as many U.S. women as five years ago are nervous to tell their boss they are pregnant.
“Folks can feel nervous because they worry they are going to lose a job,” says Greenfield. “Approach it from a problem-solving standpoint. Ask questions and find out options.”
Family leave options are different for every workplace. Consult co-workers who have been through it, your company’s human resources director, or an employee handbook so you know what your rights and options are. Larger companies, such as school districts and universities, have human resources professionals who are solely in charge of helping employees plan a leave.
“You have to understand your own place of work and go about it thoughtfully and tactfully,” says Amy Burns, a mom of one and language arts teacher at Standley Lake High School in Jefferson County. Burns took six weeks unpaid leave after the birth of her son, plus five paid personal days that she had saved.
If your pregnancy poses complications, the law could help: The Colorado Pregnant Workers Fairness Act gives pregnant employees the right to reasonable accommodations. The Pregnancy Discrimination Act prohibits an employer from targeting a pregnant employee and may, in some situations, allow women to take a leave, if they are unable to work.
There’s no perfect time to reveal a pregnancy. “Don’t feel pressure to have to tell everybody, even if you have a really important job. It’s a personal thing,” advises Christine Henry, a mom of one who works as an editor for the University of Colorado Boulder.
If You Are an Employer
Tips to make the transition more comfortable and reassuring for your new-parent employee.
- Know and follow federal and state laws and workplace policies.
- Offer reasonable accommodations for pregnant employees.
- Provide a private place for new mothers to express breast milk.
- Allow pregnant women time off from work when they are physically unable to work due to a disabling condition, such as extreme morning sickness.
- Find ways to be flexible with your new-parent employee, such as allowing one day a week to work from home, days off to care for a sick baby, or adjusting the employee’s work schedule to fit daycare hours.
The federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) allows employees to take 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave in a 12-month period for family and medical reasons. Adoptive families are also protected under FMLA. Colorado state law grants employees an additional week of FMLA leave.
Any business that employs at least 50 people within a 75-mile radius is required to follow FMLA regulations. Both full- and part-time employees are eligible for FMLA leave as long as their employer falls under the above conditions, and they have been employed for at least 12 months (1,250 hours).
But what about those who work for companies with less than 50 employees? “So much of Colorado is the land of small business—a lot of folks are just not covered,” Greenfield says. She has spent hours talking to employers of all kinds and asserts that they want to take care of their employees.
This is true for Brooke Kugler, veterinarian and part owner of Lafayette Companion Hospital. The animal hospital employs three veterinarians and five support staff—not a business that is required to offer FMLA leave. However, they offer 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave for new mothers, fathers, and adopting parents.
Kugler recalls that her one employee who has needed to take maternity leave took only six weeks. “With housing costs the way they are and childcare costs the way they are, families’ budgets are really stretched already. So being able to take FMLA when you know you are not going to have an income can be really challenging for a lot of families,” says Greenfield.
To help buffer workplace policies, some states have approved extensions to FMLA that allow for paid family leave; Colorado is not one of them—yet. Currently, two Colorado state senators and two state representatives are co-sponsoring a program that, if passed, would grant Colorado employees paid leave.
The proposed Family and Medical Leave Insurance Program (FAMLI) picks up where FMLA falls short. If passed, FAMLI would offer a statewide family and medical paid leave insurance program that would provide employees with a portion of their pay when they need time off from work to care for a child, a relative, or their own health condition. Employees would contribute annually to the fund, which employers would match.
Currently, in order to add paid days off to unpaid leave, some employees use short-term disability, or save up and use sick days, personal days, and vacation time, when possible.
Last July, the University of Colorado Boulder initiated a six-weeks paid leave policy, which when combined with saved sick days, allowed Henry to take a total of four months paid leave. “I felt extremely fortunate,” she says. “Your life is going to be 100 percent different; even if work is such a priority at that time, you have something big that is coming.”
Heading Back to Work
When it’s time to head back to the office, myriad accommodations and adjustments are necessary to balance being both employee and caregiver. “The struggle is really different for everyone,” says Michelle Albert, an attorney and mom of one. “Everyone has advice for you. You just have to decide what’s right for you and do the best you can.”
Albert was glad to have followed a friend’s suggestion to freeze breast milk when she was on maternity leave with her son. Her transition back to the office was eased by returning part time. “It helped me have some boundaries and more time for my family,” she says.
Likewise, Tori Peglar, editor and mother of two, tried working two days from home after maternity leave. Her suggestion: “Dial in childcare and have a plan B. The baby is not going to follow your schedule.”
If you are nursing and will need to pump during the workday, know that your choice is protected by law. State law requires that employers provide time each day for a mother to express milk for up to two years after the baby is born. Federal law requires employers to provide nursing mothers with a place other than a toilet stall to express milk.
But just because it’s protected by law, doesn’t mean the transition is easy. When Burns pumped at work, “I closed the blinds in my classroom, locked the door, sat on the floor under the whiteboard, and attempted to hold both [breast shields] with my knees while I read the next chapter and prepared for the next class,” she remembers.
As a teacher, Burns worked hard to uphold rigor, but didn’t have as much time to write comments on papers and plan as she had before. As a result of her new reality, she says a paradigm shift occurred in the way that she approached her career.
“I put great effort into overhauling my greater plan, reworking lesson ideas, deleting unnecessary assignments, figuring out when I could provide more verbal feedback during a class period, rather than on a paper,” she explains. “I have never gone back to my old ways. Those formative years with a new baby have permanently changed me and my career for the better. I have more succinct and purposeful lesson plans. I have greater empathy for my students, their home lives, and the quality of my own life, as well.”
To follow the status of Senate Bill 188 the Family and Medical Leave Insurance Program (FAMLI), visit the Colorado General Assembly website at leg.colorado.gov/bills/sb19-188.