For employment attorney Kimberly Lind, the kinds of challenges her clients with children face in juggling the responsibilities of parenthood and employment are not just abstract legal issues. Last year, Lind faced one such challenge herself.
Just weeks after giving birth to her third child, Lind found herself kicked out of a courtroom, with her month-old baby strapped to her chest, because the newborn had begun to cry as she waited for her docket to be heard. When she returned to the courtroom and requested a continuance of trial, postponing a future hearing to accommodate her maternity leave, the judge denied her request. As Lind recalls it, the male judge argued that she should have known her pregnancy and childbirth would interfere with the proceedings and requested a delay earlier in the process.
In a letter to fellow attorneys, Lind expressed her frustration. “Babies will be born when they are born,” she wrote. “They do not observe calendars”. Further, she added, “getting my postpartum self to court one month out after the delivery I had was a gosh darn miracle.”
Across different industries, parents, especially new mothers, struggle to balance the responsibilities and scheduling demands of full-time employment and childcare. What can employers and legislators do to help accommodate parents’ needs in the workplace, and what has been done so far?
State Senator Scott Wiener’s successful push for a law requiring private lactation spaces in the workplace is a recent example of legislation aimed specifically at accommodating the return of new mothers into the workplace. Passed in May 2019, Senate Bill 142 requires employers to provide new mothers with a private space, that is not a bathroom, to express breast milk. “New mothers should not have to choose between returning to work to put food on the table, and breastfeeding their child,” Wiener explained. “They should be able to do both.”
In addition to state laws mandating accommodations or paid leave for new mothers, there has also been a push to prevent discrimination against caretakers in cities across the country, according to Cynthia Calvert, senior advisor on family responsibilities discrimination at the University of California Hastings College of the Law’s Center for WorkLife Law. There is currently no federal or state law protecting employees in California from discrimination based on familial status, Calvert noted, but some municipalities have attempted to address the issue through local ordinances.
“What a lot of parents are interested in is not getting fired [just] because they have trouble one day with their childcare,” Calvert, who oversees the center’s employee hotline, remarked. “And that happens. It happens a lot.”
In 2009, the Center for WorkLife Law compiled a list of cities nationwide that had enacted local ordinances prohibiting discrimination on the basis of familial status or caretaking responsibilities. At the time, 53 municipalities had enacted such ordinances. A new report, which is currently in the editing phase according to Calvert, counts 185 such ordinances across the country today. “As people realize how much tension there is, how much struggle there is between work and family, obviously they’re looking for a solution,” she explained.
Access to childcare remains one of the biggest challenges for employees, Wiener noted. “If you’re not able to get your child into a childcare situation, you may not be able to work outside of the home, and that can set families back economically,” he said. “So we need to really expand access to early childhood education.”
As a growing number of women enter the workforce, the issue has caught the attention of employers as well, and for good reason, Calvert explained. “It’s better for the employer, for a number of reasons, to really support both men and women who want to be parents and who also want to be fully committed to their jobs,” she said. “The two things should not be mutually exclusive; they really don’t have to be.”
Some of Long Beach’s largest employers offer programs that assist working parents in finding and paying for childcare. Dependent care flexible spending accounts, which allow employees to set aside pre-tax dollars for qualifying expenses, such as preschool, summer day camp or after school programs, are one of the most common options offered by the city’s largest employers like the City of Long Beach, the United States Postal Service and Verizon. Verizon also offers employees 80 hours of company-subsidized back-up care per year, should a child’s main caretaker become unavailable, and the company participates in a network of childcare centers offering discounted rates to employees.
Lind said as an employment attorney and a new mother, she would love to offer childcare benefits to her employees, but the overhead costs present a barrier for small businesses like her legal practice. Tax benefits for companies offering subsidies for off-site childcare to employees could make such assistance programs a more viable option for smaller employers like herself, she argued. “I think more could be done by smaller employers if the tax code allowed for more variations to be provided as a tax benefit,” Lind said. Currently, Lind noted, only onsite childcare services qualify for tax benefits.
While on-site childcare services are not a viable option for many employers because of the overhead costs involved, two of Long Beach’s largest employers are able to offer such services to employees. Both Long Beach City College and California State University, Long Beach, (CSULB) offer on-campus childcare centers to employees and students.
The Child and Family Center on the CSULB campus has been in existence for over 30 years, according to its director, Stefanie Pedigo. The center has five full time staffers, including Pedigo, and 22 student assistants. On average, the center offers one full-time teacher per 8 students, a smaller ratio than most licensed childcare centers, Pedigo noted. University campuses are in a special position when it comes to providing childcare to employees, because they can tap into a pool of students and graduates to facilitate their programs. “In the education realm, people know that there’s a need for it and they can serve that need,” she explained.
While on-site childcare might not be a feasible option for most employers, the benefits of assisting parents in balancing their responsibilities at work and at home are significant, Calvert argued. “It reduces the employee’s stress and increases their productivity, it also increases their morale,” she said. “The employees just feel supported, they feel seen.”
As for Lind, she is planning to lobby for changes to the rules of court, that would make it easier for new mothers in her line of work to juggle their responsibilities as mothers and legal professionals. “This is a generation of the human race [being born] here. This is an important thing for us as people,” she said. “Everybody was born, everybody needed to be taken care of and it needs to be acknowledged.”