June 24, 2018
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Report: Family-friendly laws, policies in Maine existent, but need improvement

By Natalie Feulner, BDN Staff

Last year, when Dedham mother Eliana Johnston returned to work after giving birth to her daughter Elizabeth, her employer allowed her to bring her into work to breastfeed. But only for 15 minutes at a time, something both mom and daughter struggled with, especially since Elizabeth was only 12 weeks old at the time.

Johnston is no longer working for the group home, but is at a new job where she is not allowed to bring Elizabeth to work, but has access to a private, locking room to pump breast milk as needed during her breaks. It’s enough time, she said, but added it would be helpful if employers gave breastfeeding moms like herself a bit more time or flexibility in their schedule.

Johnston’s needs as a new mother were and continue to be met, but only minimally. Her situation is a commonplace experience for new mothers and families throughout Maine, according to at least one parents’ rights organization, which says while the state isn’t the worst at creating family-friendly policies, there is room for improvement.

A new study comparing workplace policies supporting new parents recently ranked Maine a “B-” and reported that the state could do more. Maine was among 11 states to receive a “B,” and California was the only state to receive an “A.” According to a press release about the survey, which was conducted by the nonprofit National Partnership for Women and Families, the grade means Maine has “some, but not enough, supportive policies that expand upon minimal federal protections.”

The report graded all 50 states and Washington, D.C., based on each state’s laws and workplace policies that expand federal leave and workplace requirements. Both private- and public-sector employers were included in the survey.

Providing accommodations

Debra L. Ness, National Partnership president, said the report was a way for the organization to reiterate that families should not have to worry about whether they’ll be able to make ends meet during or after what should be a joyous occasion.

“New mothers and fathers should not have to experience financial hardship at what should be one of the happiest times of their lives,” she said in a statement. “Yet tens of millions of expecting and new parents struggle because our nation fails to provide paid leave and other basic workplace protections.”

Only three federal laws exist for new and expecting parents, both biological and adoptive. The laws address pregnancy discrimination, provide unpaid, job-protected leave through the Family and Medical Leave Act, and protect a breast-feeding mother’s rights at work. However, there are no national policies guaranteeing families paid leave, pregnancy or postpartum accommodations and other support.

Johnston said that when she was pregnant, she worked weekends at a group home, so none of her midwife appointments were during work hours, eliminating the need to leave while on the clock. However, as her pregnancy progressed and she did need assistance with things such as lifting a wheelchair in and out of a car, she found most of her coworkers were willing to help out.

A national low

The U.S. ranks fairly low on many family-related issues, including childbirth safety and breast-feeding success. According to a recent OpEd by President Obama in the Huffington Post, it is also the only First World country without mandatory paid maternity leave, something both he and advocates are pushing to change.

“Many women can’t even get a paid day off to give birth — now that’s a pretty low bar,” Obama said in a speech on June 23 at The White House Summit on Working Families. “That, we should be able to take care of.”

It’s something Johnston said she would love to see implemented by all employers.

“Longer paid maternity leave would allow parents to spend precious time with their babies and allow people to get more sleep if they’re not worried about babies’ irregular sleep habits meshing with work schedules,” she said.

Change may be coming

Public support for family-friendly policies is growing, according to the National Partnership for Women and Families. The organization said in its report that such policies promote “the health and economic security of families and strengthen businesses and the economy.”

Several improvements have been made since the first report of its kind was published in 2005; however, advocates still feel that no state is doing enough.

“Despite the imperative for change and the progress states have made over the last several years, progress has been slow. Without question, the toll taken by inaction is high,” the report said.

California was given an “A-” and most states received either a “B” or “C”; however, 17 states, including Delaware, received an “F.” Rhode Island recently followed California’s example and started a paid family leave insurance program and other New England states, including Vermont and New Hampshire, are studying options for such programs.

“This report shows that progress toward a family-friendly America is possible, and history demonstrates that state activity can pave the way while providing needed support to working families,” Ness said. “But the ability of working people in this country, including new and expecting parents, to manage their responsibilities at home and on the job should not depend on where they live.”

Maine received extra points in the survey because while there is not mandatory paid leave, the state does require businesses with fewer than 50 employees to extend the same unpaid leave to workers. In addition, state laws require that employees with less than one year of job tenure still have access to unpaid leave, something not required by the federal FMLA.

Maine laws also broadly define “family” to include same-sex married couples, domestic partners, children of domestic partners and cohabiting siblings. And some employers, including the Bangor Daily News, do offer paid maternity leave for both parents; however, it is not a requirement or commonplace.

To see the full report and commentary on what states can do to better serve parents and families, visit NationalPartnership.org/ExpectingBetter.

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