Flex for the family

Published: Tuesday, Aug. 23 2011 9:55 p.m. MDT

Ashlyn Cann made a suggestion to her boss and now works from home to be with her 10-month-old daughter, Alexa.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

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OREM — Ashlyn Cann didn't realize what an impact one comment could make.

She was expecting her first child and working full time as an administrative assistant for Squire and Company, an accounting firm in Orem, at the time. It was important to her that when her baby was born she be home, but she didn't necessarily want to quit working.

She approached her boss Tim Christensen, a wealth adviser, with an idea. She suggested that instead of quitting altogether, she work from home. Cann figured she had enough dead-time in the office between projects that she could shrink her workday and do much of it remotely. Nine months postpartum, she works from a satellite office space in her home through the Internet, a server and a phone router that directs Christensen's calls to Cann's home telephone.

A new study by Pinka Chatterji of the National Bureau of Economic Research shows that companies and individuals like Squire and Cann who find alternatives to full-time work in the office after childbirth is a step toward better maternity leave options.

According to the study, a mother's full-time job will not adversely affect her child's cognitive and behavior development, but going back to work early can have negative effects on emotional development. Full-time working mothers of 3-month-olds were more depressed, stressed, had more poor health and overall family stress than mothers who were able to stay home during that time. Though critical for family health, only 12 percent of companies give paid maternity leave, and 22 percent use sick leave or vacation time to compensate their maternity leave, according to the National Partnership for Womena and families.

For many already living paycheck-to-paycheck in a rough economy, maternity leave ends when paid leave time runs out – whether or not mothers who have just given birth have adjusted and healed. Companies, too, have to "draw the economic line somewhere," says Tim Larsen, Squire's managing partner. As part of that, maternity leave is often excluded from benefits. A practical alternative for firms like Squire is to work with women to adjust schedules according to changing family circumstances.

Squire has employed several mothers, most recently Cann and a professional accountant. Another expecting employee recently approached the company about making an exception to roll-over her vacation time from last year to help compensate her anticipated maternity leave.

Larsen believes making these accommodations keeps employees happy, loyal and gives incentive for them to give their best work to the firm.

"I think (these mothers) feel like we've been more than generous with them and they are more loyal to our firm," Larsen said. "If they're good employees and they've been loyal to the company, we try to be loyal to them. They're valuable people that know our systems and know how we do things."

Monali Sheth, staff attorney with Equal Rights Advocates in San Francisco, believes that employers should be flexible.

"It's got to be an employee-employer effort," Sheth said. "Our workplaces, our employers need to work to keep employees happy but also to meet their work requirements and goals."

She also recommends that women who are looking to negotiate maternity leave first look under their employee handbook or union's collective bargaining agreement, research what other women in the company have done for maternity leave and know their rights in advance. When a woman finally does approach her boss, she should emphasize the value of her work and that she wants to stay on board.

"Frankly, some of our best employees are women and one of my best partners is a woman," Larsen said. "So why wouldn't you work with them? Why would you put restrictions on them or different boundaries because they have different needs? That would be foolish. We try to work with that instead of against that. Our policy is let's first ask what can you give us and then arrange something… it's not rocket science."

EMAIL: crosenlof@desnews.com

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