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Survey shows increased interest in maternity and paternity leave policies

Maternity and paternity leaves are becoming an ever larger issue as more women join the work force. In the past, women who had children either left their jobs for several years or dropped out permanently. As career and family financial commitments have changed, so return-to-work patterns have altered. Today most women return to work within a few months of childbirth, some within a few weeks.

In view of this drastic social change and the projection that women will constitute half of the work force by 1990 (of whom 80 percent, it is predicted, will become pregnant at some point during their work lives), the results of a new survey will help pinpoint the most urgent needs of both employers and employees and yield some new directions for future progress.

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Catalyst, a national organization whose research is aimed at increasing productivity in the workplace by resolving career and family problems, has just announced initial results of its survey of Fortune 1,500 corporations as to their maternity/parental leave policies.

Questionnaires were sent to some 1,400 companies. Of the widely scattered 420 that responded, 95 percent indicated that they now offer paid short-term disability leave for pregnancy as required by the 1978 Pregnancy Discrimination Act. It applies only to natural mothers, and its length is determined in each case by medical opinion. When only disability leave is taken, 63 percent of women return to work within eight weeks.

The survey reveals that three months is the average total length of leave time taken by women, and that both managers and non-managers take about the same amount of time.

Only 7 percent of the companies indicated they give paid leaves beyond the disability leave. But more than half, or 51 percent, now offer additional unpaid leaves for women to make whatever adjustments might be necessary. Such leaves can be as long as 12 months, although few women stay away from their jobs that long.

In companies with nondiscriminatory policies, men are often offered ''child-care leaves'' of one to four weeks to help care for newborn babies. About one-third of the responding companies offer unpaid leave to new fathers.

Felice Schwartz, president of Catalyst, claims her organization is concerned with turning the attention of the corporate community from simply a mandated response to legislation to a deeper understanding of how new and better policies will increase retention of women and overall productivity.

Leave policies, she maintains, should be flexible enough to enable new mothers to gain a sense of control over their lives, a sense of security about the kind of care they work out for their children, and a feeling of confidence about the supporting role of their husbands.

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The survey also indicated openness to more flexible and innovative leave policies for a changing employee population. But companies feel stuck between consideration of short-term productivity and long-term gain.

''On one hand, they feel uncertain about how to handle the work of these absent workers,'' says Dr. Phyllis Silverman, director of the organization's Career and Family Center. ''On the other hand, they know that it is in their best interest to offer leaves that really work for them, as well as for their employees who are parents and for their children. Otherwise, they will not be able to retain, move up, or recruit the best talent.

''Yet they are faced with new laws and legal constraints which insist that all employees must be treated equally. Some companies want to offer more generous leaves to new parents. But how do they then avoid the appearance of favoring some employees over others or of being unfair? And what do they do about people who are not parents who may also demand leaves?''

Corporations are aware that women are already seeking out those companies that have the most progressive leave policies. And employees, often baffled by unclear, limited, or inflexible leave policies, are seeking information on other companies' policies to help plan their leaves and negotiate with their employers.

Despite this interest, little information on corporate attitudes and practices in this area has been available.

The ongoing Catalyst study, which will be completed about Dec. 1, is designed to provide useful data on current practices and give suggestions for developing clear, equitable, and adequate leave policies. It will describe innovative policies already in existence or currently being developed and tested, and provide prototype materials to assist both management and employees in planning for effective leaves.

Preliminary analysis of the 1984 data suggests that child-care subsidy programs have increased since 1980, and that use of sick days for children's illnesses has grown. By contrast, there has been no positive recent movement at all toward allowance of flexible workplaces. ''After all the media talk about people being allowed to work at home,'' says Dr. Silverman, ''we were surprised to find that so few companies were actually allowing it, or even favoring it. In 1980 our sample showed that 8 percent allowed flexible workplaces, but only 7 percent did so in 1984.''

Only 17 percent of companies surveyed now have job-sharing arrangements, although three-fifths indicated they favored them. About 14 percent offer part-time managerial positions, but one-third of the companies favor having them.

One encouraging finding was that 60 percent of companies surveyed indicated that they had allowed women employees to return to work, at least for a limited time, on a part-time basis.

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