When Deborah Bayle discovered she was expecting her second child, she knew her job was not in jeopardy.

Bayle, a vice president for the Salt Lake Area Chamber of Commerce, planned to take some time off to recover from childbirth, but an ample maternity policy assured her of returning to her position after a "reasonable time period."Margy Prescott, who worked in the yard of a Utah concrete company, expected similar treatment when she told her employer about her pregnancy. Just two months later, however, she found herself without a job.

"They laid only me off and no other people on the crew, though I had more seniority," she said. She was certain the decision was based on her pregnancy. "I'm not a fool - I knew what it was."

Both women and their employers, like many others throughout Utah, faced a potentially sticky situation when the pregnancies came to light. Women need time off for recovery from childbirth and often a paycheck to go with it, but many employers lack the ability - or experience - to accommodate them.

As the number of women in Utah's work force steadily increases, maternity leave is fast becoming an issue employers cannot ignore. Women worry about what will happen to their jobs if they become pregnant, while personnel directors and business owners are surrounded by questions about salary, amount of leave time and job security.

Conflicts may stem from a widespread belief that women are entitled by law to a six-week, paid maternity leave. But this is only a myth, said George Lopez, an investigator for the Anti-discrimination Division of the Utah Industrial Commission. Legally, employers have the final say in handling it.

Some companies have established policies their women workers find satisfactory. But with virtually no guidance from state laws and very little on a federal level, many employers are struggling to fashion equitable policies, while others have none at all.

A study by the American Association of University Women found that the average earnings of a working woman who gives birth drop about $3,000 the year the child is born, the Washington Post reported recently.

Most of the drop is simply loss of earnings for time taken off to deliver and care for the child. But part of it comes when women return to the labor market and are forced to take lower-paying jobs because they weren't guaranteed re-employment at their old jobs, the Post said. The new jobs typically pay $1.40 an hour less.

Lopez would like Utah to regulate the issue. About 25 percent of the gender-based discrimination complaints his office receives are maternity related. The office's four investigators handled 47 such cases during the past fiscal year.

"Of course, we hear the bad things," he said. "We rarely get calls of women telling how wonderful their job situation is. But based on the complaints, many employers are not acting in good faith when it comes to this select group of women who are working."

Prescott's termination left her with no maternity benefits for her child's birth and no job to come back to. A few months later, she protested to the anti-discrimination office. After long, stressful negotiations, Prescott reluctantly accepted a small settlement and then gave up the fight.

"I got virtually nothing," she said. "I just couldn't handle it any more. I was under too much pressure."

Another incident had a happier ending for the woman involved, Lopez said. She worked for a restaurant chain and was told she had to quit when she was four months pregnant, then reapply like any other prospective employee when she was ready to work again. She protested to the anti-discrimination office, and Lopez helped instigate a compromise between her and the employer.

"The employer realized they were behind the times, and they not only paid the woman lost income but went back and paid another woman who had lost pay before in the same situation."

Utah, with its lack of maternity laws, has plenty of company, however. Not only do most other states require few or no paid benefits, but the United States itself is the only major industrialized nation that does not have a national policy. Pregnant workers in at least eight other countries have some assurance of keeping their jobs. (See chart on B2.)

Employers have their share of problems with pregnancy, too. They are forced to foot big bills for the women. The General Accounting Office has estimated that if women in larger firms were guaranteed four months leave, the cost to employers would be $102 million in health-insurance continuation premiums alone.

Lopez, whose work gives him the companies' perspective as well as the women's, said the temporary loss of a valuable employee could be devastating in some fields of work, and many times a company cannot afford to have others "cover" for a woman on leave.

"Certain businesses can't tolerate the absence of some individuals at all," Lopez said.

Bayle faced such a situation. Five weeks after the birth of her son she went back to work full time, though she didn't feel totally ready. However, it was pressure of her job, not the requirement of her employer, that prompted her return.

"I have a demanding position," she said. "I took five weeks off, but I had my secretary come out once a week and bring work to me. It's not feasible in my position to hire a temporary."

Conversely, some companies have little trouble finding temporary replacements for an employee on leave, Lopez said. In a case like a secretarial pool where Mary or Jane could easily fill in for Sally a restrictive maternity-leave policy would not be warranted, he said.

On a national level, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 requires employers to treat pregnancy-related disabilities the "same as other temporary disabilities." That means if a worker was granted job security and paid leave for any illness or disability, a pregnant woman must be afforded the same benefit.

Lopez said companies don't always apply the 1978 law fairly. If a woman is fired because she is not able to work for a period of time, "that technically is legal. But it's not the spirit and intent of the law. You have to look at individual circumstances.

"The law says let's not categorize them like cattle. Let's look at them as individuals who have developed a medical condition and respect that."

Since statutory guidance is so limited, some companies have set policies themselves.

A decade ago, Lynn Peterson, manager of employee services at Utah Power & Light, helped fashion a policy for women who want time off after having a baby. Workers at UP&L receive eight weeks off after delivery with a guarantee of getting their job back. The policy also allows them to use any accumulated sick leave or vacation time.

Peterson said if a woman needs time off prior to delivery, she must get a note from her doctor indicating such action is warranted. "We look at it case by case," he said.

UP&L employment supervisor Valerie Smith views the policy as fair. After having her baby, Smith took eight weeks off to recover. "It's a pretty good policy compared to a lot of others," she said.

There still is room for improvement, Smith said. "I'd like to see it a little more liberal and maybe give a little more time off. But I understand that the company's losing money by not having a trained employee for a while."

Peterson is satisfied with the policy. "I haven't heard one complaint. Most women have given praise and thanks to the company for saving their job for them."

The amount of time a woman needs for recovery is a highly debated point, but the six-week leave appears to be standard, said Dr. Steve Voss, public education chairman for the Utah OB/GYN Society. "The reason that there's been no legislation is that it's variable how fast women can repair and recover. It's so individual."

From a physiological standpoint, he said, six weeks is an adequate amount of time off for women with a normal delivery and recovery. That's about how long it takes for the body to heal, and the immunological benefits of breast-feeding subside at about six weeks after delivery. "It gives them a nice break, too, a chance to get used to having a baby," he said.

Women's opinions vary as to how extensive the benefits should be. Though Bayle rushed back to work after her second child, she took three months off for her first. "That was a lot better. I felt I was more physically and emotionally recovered.

"Three months off would be ideal, but in many cases it'd be difficult for a company to hold a job open that long," she said.

Pamela Anderson, an executive administrative secretary at LDS Hospital who had a baby in December, planned to take six weeks with her paid leave but at the last minute decided to take another week of her own vacation time.

The hospital offers a six-week maternity leave with a guarantee of job return. Anderson said she thinks the policy is fair, but "I would've asked for eight weeks had I known I would need more time. It was my first baby.

"It would be more effective for you and for your job when you come back with just that two extra weeks. There's a growth period there with your child. They change a lot at 6 to 7 weeks old."

Some job situations create unusual circumstances. A teacher with a spring baby could actually have three months or more off with her child because of summer vacation. Diane Healey, a junior high school teacher for Granite School District, hoped her baby would be born the last few days of April, though she was due in April 19. But baby was born early, and after four weeks Healey had to return for the last month of school.

Many employers allow a job-guaranteed leave but do not pay during the time off, Lopez said. This forces a single mother or a woman who must supplement her husband's income to get back to work quickly. And if she cannot, consequences may be more severe.

"We all pay for it. If a woman loses her job because of pregnancy and must go on welfare, that's taxpayers' money," he said.

Lopez offers advice to employers in dealing with pregnancies: "All you need to do is analyze each situation, then don't panic. We see people botching that every day. There's no reason not to be comfortable about handling it."

There may, in fact, be benefits to employers who grant maternity leave, Lopez said. A company is getting an experienced employee to come back, thus eliminating hiring and training costs on a replacement employee. And workers who are treated well generally are more loyal to their employers. "An investment in employees will turn around and benefit the company," he said.

If there are valid business needs, there should be nothing to worry about, he said. "Women aren't asking for extra - they just want employers to be reasonable."