There isn’t a lot of dialogue about those who cover for someone while he or she is out.
Q: There’s a lot of conversation about paternity and maternity leave, and the person who’s taking it. But there isn’t a lot of dialogue about those who cover for that person while he or she is out.
When someone goes on a leave, it requires others to take on significantly more work, for the same pay and title. I would love your thoughts on what’s fair. — New York City
A: It’s true that while parental leave policies are widely discussed and debated, most of the focus is on either the working parent or the employer. Whether that’s fair or not, I wouldn’t expect it to change. So think instead about how you can get your concerns into the conversation.
First, some background may be useful.
The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 requires most employers to offer new mothers 12 weeks of unpaid leave. Several states have or plan laws requiring paid leave, with varying specifics, typically funded by a payroll tax. And some research on state policies has included attempts to gauge their general impact on co-workers.
Surveys before and after California introduced a paid family leave policy in 2004 asked workers how they were affected when a colleague took a leave. Before the law, 25 percent reported a negative effect; five years later, that fell to 16 percent, said Eileen Appelbaum, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, who conducted the studies with Ruth Milkman, a City University of New York sociology professor.
Smaller studies in other states have had similar findings, said Maya Rossin-Slater, a Stanford professor of health research and policy. Milkman said more generous policies appeared to attract more participants and, as they became more routinely integrated into business practice, seemed to be more generally appreciated.
Of course, evidence that many people like these policies doesn’t do you much good in the short term. But many employers, aware that this issue is a moving target, are figuring out how to adjust in ways that balance compliance and competitiveness, said Sander VanderWerf, a senior vice president of health benefits at Aon, a consulting firm.
“Managers need to work with the team,” VanderWerf said, to figure out whether to bring in temporary help or find clever ways to absorb the leave-taker’s duties.
In your company, it might be productive to talk to a trusted manager about how this is playing out, and what could change.
As always, frame the matter in terms of its impact on the business. Perhaps there are ways employees like you could be rewarded for taking on extra responsibility.
“Workers have always been having babies or dealing with family members getting sick,” Rossin-Slater said, “and employers have had to navigate these issues on a case-by-case basis.” With new state policies sparking more discussion, managers might be more open to input than you think.
In short, maybe the best way for you to have the conversation you want is to start it yourself.
Returning from maternity leave, or not
Q: I’m expecting a baby soon. My company has very graciously allowed me to take about six months of maternity leave.
I’m a professional in a high-stress field, and I’m not sure if it will be possible to keep up with my job with a young child, given that my husband has a demanding job as well.
How bad is it if I take the leave, come back to work and try it out for a little bit, and decide it’s too hard and leave the job? Will I burn bridges? Will I have to pay back the health insurance premiums that they paid while I was on leave? — Anonymous
A: If you quit during your leave, or within 30 days of returning to your job, your employer could most likely seek reimbursement for health insurance premiums it paid during your leave. Details may vary, and state laws may also apply, so ask about your company’s specific policy.
Beyond that, things get subjective. Many people would consider it unethical to soak the company for benefits if you know perfectly well that you’ll quit.
I think the spirit in which you are approaching the decision is appropriate: Take your leave, come back, and give the job an honest try. If you end up deciding that it doesn’t suit you anymore, you might try to work out a new arrangement with your employer rather than walk away completely. Be honest and respectful, and no bridges should burn. After all, you really don’t know how you’ll feel about it. And there’s only one way to find out.