Baby in the boardroom: Infant-at-work programs good for kids, parents and companies
Companies in Washington state are leading the move to help families balance work and parenthood, to everyone's benefit.
Attorney Annie Yu brings baby Hadley to work with her at the state Attorney General's Office.
PHOTO: IAN COUCH
When Annie Yu leaves for work in the morning, she takes her briefcase, her keys ... and her baby.
Yu is an attorney in the state Attorney General's Office, where the Infant at Work Program was introduced this year. Approved employees are allowed to bring in babies, from 6 weeks to 6 months, for the full workday.
While Yu works, her 5-month-old baby, Hadley, plays on the floor, snuggles in a front carrier, or naps in a Rock ’n Play. Two co-workers are officially designated to trade off watching the baby when Yu attends a meeting, but many others are eager to volunteer.
“It was a really cool experience to be sitting at a professional table that I belonged at, doing important work, but to also know that my baby was only 100 yards away,” says Yu.
More than 2,100 babies in over 200 organizations have been successfully brought to work nationwide through the program, according to the Parenting in the Workplace Institute.
“I think it’s made me more productive because it’s really boosted my overall job satisfaction,” says attorney Natalie King, another parent who is utilizing the program.
Research shows that well-structured babies-at-work programs result in numerous organizational benefits, including higher morale, increased teamwork and lower employee turnover.
“As a parent of 10-year-old twins, I know the importance of the first months of a child’s life,” says Attorney General Bob Ferguson. “[The Infant at Work Program] helps our office attract and retain talented staff, but more importantly, it gives parents the flexibility and support they need in the first months of their child’s life.”
In a country where only 14 percent of civilian workers have access to any paid family leave through their employer, Washington state is ahead of the curve. Starting in 2020, Washington workers will be entitled to 12 weeks of paid leave for the birth, adoption or foster placement of a new child. Birth parents who experience pregnancy complications can receive 18 weeks of paid leave.
Historically, low-income workers and especially women of color have suffered the most from a lack of access to paid family and medical leave benefits. Under the new law, low-income workers will receive 90 percent of their wages and higher-income workers will receive a progressively smaller portion of their wages.
Several Seattle companies are already going above and beyond. Zillow Group offers 16 weeks pay at 100 percent base salary, $1,000 in Amazon “Baby Bucks” for new parents to purchase the essentials, free breast-milk shipping for nursing mothers traveling for business, $10,000 per employee toward adoption expenses, coverage for infertility services and 16 days of backup childcare per year via Bright Horizons.
After returning from maternity leave, Kirsten Colony, a lead onboarding manager at Zillow, says she received powerful support from her company as she struggled with postpartum anxiety and depression.
“I’m an intelligent, accomplished person and I didn’t want to be perceived as someone who can’t handle things,” says Colony. “It was the push from my co-workers and benefits team that got me to see, OK, you’re right, I need some help.”
She took a short-term disability leave to participate in a postpartum outpatient program and returned to work better prepared to cope with the transition to working motherhood. Colony is still with Zillow.
A large, profitable company like Zillow is in an obvious position to offer great benefits, but even some small Seattle businesses have embraced the radical idea that employees are humans with meaningful lives outside of the workplace.
Molly Moon Neitzel, founder of Molly Moon’s Homemade Ice Cream shops, offers her employees 12 weeks of 100 percent paid family leave for parents bringing new children home through birth, fostering or adoption. She also pays 100 percent of health insurance premiums for employees and their children.
“I feel sort of naive that I didn’t really get how important 12 weeks of leave is until I had to care for a newborn,” says Neitzel, mother to a 5-year-old daughter and 9-month-old daughter. “It really makes me think, ‘Wow, more women need to be in power creating these policies that affect every single human being.’”
At Molly Moon headquarters above the Capitol Hill shop, Neitzel manages her workflow as well as her milk flow. She often leads meetings while wearing the Willow, a portable breast pump worn under her top. “We lovingly call her robot-boobs,” says Miranda Smith, Neitzel’s executive assistant and social-media specialist.
PHOTO: COURTESY OF MOLLY MOON NEITZEL
Molly Moon Neitzel holds Scout, daughter of executive assistant/social media specialist Miranda Smith, in a business meeting.
After Smith had her daughter, Scout, last year, she was grateful to have a comfortable room in which to pump at work. She had never planned on having children, so when a surprise pregnancy afflicted her with debilitating nausea, she found herself in good company. “Everyone was so nice and understanding that I couldn’t perform at my peak,” says Smith.
The best ice cream for pregnancy cravings? “We have so many pregnant women who get addicted to our salted caramel,” says Neitzel. And postpartum? “Cookie dough with hot fudge was my jam. Our cookie dough has oatmeal in it, so I tell myself it’s good for milk production too."
Breast milk is one of many benefits a child is more likely to receive when their mother has access to paid family leave. While the United States is still the only industrialized nation in the world without a federal paid family-leave policy, Washington is taking steps in the right direction. Baby steps.
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