Barbara Scherr Trenk is a Long Island, N. Y-based writer specializing in health and business issues.
It wasn't long ago that the baby shower given by a pregnant woman's co-workers doubled as her farewell to the workplace.
Today, however, half of the million or more working women who become pregnant each year are returning to their jobs before their child is a year old, making the theme of the party more likely to be au revoir than adieu.
Nor are these women in any hurry to leave the office. While there are no current statistics on how many women work until the end of their pregnancy, a 1980 study found that 41 percent of white collar women were still at their desks at the start of the ninth month. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists states that most women can safely work right up to their due date, and it appears that the number of women who do so continues to increase.
These working mothers-to-be have included such highly visible personalities as Pakistan's Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and NBC TV's jane Pauley, both of whom drew media attention when they stayed on their jobs throughout pregnancy and returned to work shortly after giving birth. But the ranks of short leave-takers also include women in a full range of jobs and careers-lawyers, factory workers, supervisors and support staff.
"A lot of our nurses work through pregnancy, and just take the elevator up to the maternity floor when they begin labor," said a spokesperson for Beth Israel Hospital in Boston.
In 1978, discrimination on the basis of pregnancy became illegal in the United States, with passage of the Pregnancy Disability Act, an amendment to Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The PDA, as it has become known, requires that "women affected by pregnancy or related conditions must be treated in the same manner as other applicants or employees with similar abilities or limitations," according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
This means that an employer must treat all disabilities the same-broken leg, pregnancy or heart attack," say Glenn J. Franklin and Arthur R. Kaufman, Melville, N.Y.-based attorneys who specialize in advising managers on labor relations issues.
Under PDA, an employer may not deny a woman the right to work during or after pregnancy or childbirth if she is physically able to perform the necessary functions of her job. And an employer may not deny her request to transfer to less physically demanding work if it provides that opportunity to workers for other disabilities, the federal agency says.
While EEOC and such organizations as the American Civil Liberties Union still receive complaints from women who feel they were denied their rights under this law, many businesses encourage employees to stay on the job throughout pregnancy and to return to the workplace after the baby is born.
INTO THE PLANT
Many employers are even bringing prenatal education programs into the office or plant, with activities that range from telephone counseling to exercise classes.
Employer-sponsored prenatal health programs can help to control the high medical costs associated with premature births and Caesarean deliveries, according to Dr. Leon Warshaw, executive director of the New York Business Group on Health. Some companies have also found that productivity of pregnant women has increased thanks to such programs, with lower absenteeism and an ability to work longer into pregnancy.
When First National Bank of Chicago analyzed the costs it was incurring for healthcare under its self-insurance benefit plan, 15 percent of its expenditures were found to be related to maternity, says Dr. Wayne Burton, vice president and medical director of the 17,000-employee firm.
Because the bank's workforce is 60 percent female, and most of these women are in their childbearing years, First National officials decided that offering a program to encourage better prenatal care would be a service for employees that would also help reduce the firm's medical costs. …