January 31, 2019 practice point

Oh, Baby! Accommodating Parental Leave in Your Small Firm

By Kelsey Heino

So, someone in your office is expecting a bundle of joy. You’ve thrown the office baby shower and the due date is fast approaching. How is your small office going to handle the upcoming arrival? According to a survey by the Society for Human Resource Management, only 12 percent of U.S. companies with fewer than 100 employees offer paid maternity leave. Here are a few suggestions for handling the impact of a missing employee.

  • Learn Your Alphabet (Soup): For employers with more than 50 employees, FMLA requires an expecting parent to be given 12 weeks of job-protected leave. Most solo and small firms don’t reach that threshold, but that doesn’t mean an expecting employee is without options. It’s very possible your state has protections in place for pregnant workers, and every company still has to comply with the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978. To find out what laws apply in your state, check out this list of State Family Leave Laws published by the National Conference of State Legislatures. Be sure to get up to date on which laws apply to your office.
  • Follow the Leader: If you are required to have a maternity leave policy by law, or if you decide to offer one anyway (research shows it is a highly valued benefit for potential employees), a good starting place for drafting your policy is the FMLA and your state’s statutes. There’s no need to reinvent the stroller wheel. The biggest decision if you’re voluntarily providing leave is how much time to allow. The most common range is 6–8 weeks, but if your company can support a longer leave, your employees will almost certainly appreciate it.

    Also give some consideration to the eligibility requirements for the policy—how long must the employee have worked for you? Must they be a full-time employee? Are other employees allowed to share their sick time or PTO with the impacted employee so that he or she can take more paid leave?

    Whatever you decide, apply your policy consistently with no special treatment or discriminatory application. Include your policy in employee handbooks and terms of employment.
  • Sharing Is Caring: It’s astonishing how much work one person can be responsible for, and your firm may figure that out the hard way when a valuable employee is on leave. Having a plan in place well in advance of delivery is crucial. Don’t leave it until a week or two before the due date, since there is always the possibility of an early arrival. If you have enough employees to spread the responsibilities amongst, be sure to set clear expectations as to who will be handling each duty. A memorandum to the office as a whole may be appropriate so everyone is on the same page.

    If you only have one or two employees, it’s probably time to look into bringing on temporary help. A great pool to draw from is retired or partially retired people in the same position or industry. If you had a paralegal go part time recently, maybe they can fill in for these few weeks—this is especially handy if they are familiar with your office. Or this could be an opportunity for an intern to step up and prove their abilities. And, of course, there are temporary employment agencies for just such a situation. If you’re bringing on someone to cover for the new parent, it may be worth having them start a week or two ahead of the expected leave, so they can learn the ropes and hit the ground running when the time comes.

    One thing to keep in mind is that an employee on leave may decide to stay home permanently. It’s a good idea to have the employee write up all their daily tasks and broader responsibilities. You can use that information both to train whoever is taking over temporarily and to write a job description if you need to fill the spot later on.

Providing your employees with maternity or family leave, whether mandated or not, can be a great tool for employee retention. However, it can also be a big undertaking for a small office. Taking the time to plan ahead can make all the difference!

Kelsey Heino is a civil litigation attorney with Goosmann Law Firm in Sioux City, Iowa.


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