ANNAPOLIS –Rebecca S alsbury, 31, has less than one month to go before she becomes a mother. She plans to readjust her work-life balance when the time comes, but so far her pregnancy has meant little professional change at the private law firm in Baltimore where she’s an associate.
“Lucky,” is the word she used to describe her circumstances on the cusp of a paid three-month maternity leave, which she hopes will be followed by a nanny-share program she’ll arrange with a neighbor. The parents plan to share the cost of a single, child caretaker during the workday.
“I feel very fortunate that I can make that decision, that I can choose from different child- care options,” said Salsbury, a board member at the Women’s Law Center of Maryland.
Salsbury’s luxury of choice aligns with the experience of some pregnant women navigating the workplace in Maryland, but the experience for others, like Shayvon Omosanya, 24, could hardly be described as luxury, or even choice.
In an effort to correct that imbalance, Omosanya testified in a March hearing that led to Maryland’s passage of a pregnant worker protections act. The bill ensures that pregnant women cannot be forced out of their jobs or denied reasonable accommodations in the workplace.
Maryland — where, according to Department of Labor data, 78 percent of women in the childbearing age range of 20-44 are in the workforce — is one of at least eight states to pass pregnant worker protections.
Nationally, the number of pregnancy discrimination charges in the workplace has increased by 35 percent over the past decade, according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Omosanya, as a woman within that demographic, had a personal stake in the cause.
Shortly after she became pregnant with her second child, the young mother learned that she had an incompetent cervix, a medical condition that prevented her from lifting anything more than 20 pounds.
She loved her job at Spa Creek Center, a Genesis HealthCare rehabilitation and nursing home in Annapolis where she had been working for eleven months. But lifting food trays and pushing heavy carts would put her and her baby at risk, so she asked to be moved to another department or work in the café making soups and salads.
Omosanya submitted a note from her doctor about her medical circumstances and was called to the human resources department soon after. There she was told that the home could not accommodate her requests and her employment would be terminated.
“Not only did I lose my job, I lost my home, I lost my income, I couldn’t take care of my children,” said Omosanya.
Today, she lives with her family in a transitional homeless shelter in Annapolis.
“I felt that they made me choose between being able to provide for me and my 5-year-old or risking the safety of my unborn child. It was just really unfair to me, and it broke my heart,” she said.
Omosanya gave birth in April and plans to look for a new job as soon as she recovers. For Omosanya, it is a relief to know that once the bill takes effect on Oct.1 she will not face the same outcome if she becomes pregnant again.
Salsbury, the expectant lawyer, is one of the 75 percent of Maryland women between the ages of 16 and 54 who are in the labor force, meaning they are working or looking for work, according to 2012 data from the Maryland Department of Labor. By comparison, 82 percent of men in that age range are in Maryland’s labor force.
Nationally, the effects of these numbers can be seen in the outpouring of feminist voices on what it means to be both a professional woman and modern mother.
Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg and Anne-Marie Slaughter, former director of policy planning for the U.S. State Department, are just two of the many high-profile women to recently weigh in on the rewards and challenges for ambitious females in the workplace.
Sandberg’s book, “Lean In,” argues that women ought to dedicate more energy to professional success, while Slaughter’s 2012 Atlantic article, “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All” suggests that professional success often comes at the cost of a satisfying motherhood. Both pieces have reinvigorated the ongoing feminist debate as women gain more powerful business roles.
But for many women, climbing to the top of an executive ladder is not what defines their work-life struggles when they become pregnant.
“We are working on federal legislation for reasonable accommodations for pregnant women in the workplace, particularly for women in blue-collar jobs where they may need some reasonable alterations to their job to continue working,” Sarah Crawford, director of workplace fairness at the National Partnership for Women and Families. Her organization is working to expand those efforts nationally.
Pregnancy protection alone would not mean an end to other struggles for working mothers, Crawford said. Wage gaps and restrictions on family and medical leave offer other challenges.
A paid three-month maternity leave like the one Salsbury receives from her private law firm is rare in the U.S.
“We are really the only First World country that does not have a policy requiring paid leave for new parents,” Crawford said. “There are 178 countries that guarantee paid leave for new mothers.”
As in the experiences of Salsbury and Omosanya, challenges facing working women may be shaped by circumstance. Salsbury, for example, recognizes that implementation of the pregnant workers fairness bill in Maryland will have little effect on her work life as a lawyer.
Some challenges, however, may be universal for working women who are considering having a child.
“I do think, just generally, women think more about family planning aspects than men do,” Salsbury said. “I know my husband didn’t think about it the way I did. For a woman, it’s definitely something you sort of have to plan for and think about the consequences of your decision.”