Last week, Marissa Mayer, one of Google's earliest hires and most famous faces, announced that she will leave Google to become the new CEO of Yahoo. She also announced that she and her husband are expecting a baby in the next several months. At first glance, Ms. Mayer's move could be seen as a great sign of workplace progress – she is a young woman taking the top post at a major American corporation on her own merits. However, many who initially cheered the news of Ms. Mayer's new CEO role were later disappointed and concerned by the additional information that she will take only a few weeks of maternity leave, and intends to work while on leave.
In so doing, Mayer may have helped to undermine the already fragile right of parents in the U.S. to take leave to care for a newborn or a newly adopted child. The worry is that employers, aware of Ms. Mayer's unrealistic example, may now ask an expectant parent who requests maternity leave why she can't also work while on maternity leave, and why she needs the full 12 weeks? And will she at least be checking email?
It is a massive understatement to say that Ms. Mayer's situation is unlike that of most women in the workplace - after all, she is estimated to be worth $300 million earned during her time at Google, and her future pay at Yahoo may reach $70 million. With that kind of wealth, Ms. Mayer will be able to afford a staff of nannies and other kinds of assistance to help keep her household and family running. Frankly, people as wealthy as Ms. Mayer don't even need to work.
For the rest of us who do, however, the dilemma of how to balance work and childrearing, especially when a new baby joins the family, can be a difficult and sometimes impoverishing struggle.Unlike nearly every other country in the developed world, the United States does not require employers to provide paid maternity leave. In EU countries, new parents get months (if not years) of paid maternity leave, and often also receive support payments from the government. Furthermore, in some EU countries, the social safety net extends to providing high quality, low cost child care to all, regardless of income.
By contrast, under the Family and Medical Leave Act [FMLA], American employees who have worked for an employer for at least one year are entitled to take only twelve weeks of unpaid maternity or paternity leave. (The FMLA also protects employees who need unpaid leave to recover from or undergo treatment for their own serious health conditions.) Employees who take FMLA leave are entitled to return to their positions, or to substantially similar positions, after the twelve weeks of leave is up. If an employer violates these rights, the employee can sue.
Federal employees have the right to substitute accrued paid leave, if available, when they take Family and Medical Leave. However, unless they are covered by union contracts that include family and medical leave provisions, Federal employees are in the same boat as private sector employees, with no right to paid maternity or parental leave. Parents are on their own at crafting child-care solutions, with only the occasional tax credit to help. The FMLA is certainly better than nothing, but raising kids while trying to earn a living is still a rather Darwinian exercise in the U.S.
At The Federal Practice Group, we recognize the critical importance of the FMLA and other legal protections for working parents - especially working mothers, who bear a disproportionately large share of the national child care and housework burden. Day in and day out, parental protections are under constant assault in the workplace. We believe these rights, and the careers of working parents, deserve a vigorous defense when threatened or violated. If you believe that you have suffered adverse treatment in the federal workplace due to having taken maternity leave or having child care responsibilities, please contact us to discuss the facts of your case.