Vermont state human resources employee Courtney O’Brien holds her 4-month-old at her office at the Department of Transportation. A number of states have programs to allow workers to bring their infants, under 6 months old, to the office (Photo via The Pew Charitable Trusts).
By Elaine S. Povich
BARRE, Vt. — Courtney O’Brien’s tiny office at the Vermont Department of Transportation building a few miles from the state capital city of Montpelier looks like a mashup between a nursery and a workspace.
That’s because it is.
On a recent weekday morning, O’Brien, 29, clicked a computer keyboard with one hand while cradling her 4-month-old son in the other.
“I’ve gotten really good at typing with one hand,” she said. The baby, whose name she didn’t want published, was quiet, almost asleep, as she worked. As his eyes closed, she gently turned from the computer and settled him into a portable crib. Her pace picked up. “I better get some work done while he’s asleep,” she said, quickly bringing up the day’s documents.
She said the baby “has been a dream” mostly, sometimes even sleeping through conference calls. “There’s not many days when he’s fussy,” she said. But on those days, she might have to take him down the hall to her supervisor, who has agreed to be a backup caregiver, should O’Brien have to get on the phone or go to a meeting.
In the tiny office, a portable crib is just one piece of equipment. A play mat with a mobile above it is tucked on the floor along the other wall, a child safety seat sits on a sturdy cabinet, and nursing equipment, extra clothes, diapers and a bag with toys are stuffed into corners. There’s a curtain over the small window in the door — for breast-feeding privacy and to allow O’Brien to dim the lights when her little one naps.
The United States is the only industrialized country in the world without a paid family leave policy, according to a 2018 study in the journal Milbank Quarterly. The District of Columbia and a handful of states have paid leave policies, however.
But not Vermont. Gov. Phil Scott, a Republican, vetoed a paid family leave bill late last month that would have allowed new parents the chance to develop family bonds at home for 12 weeks while still receiving a paycheck. The Vermont House fell just short of overriding the governor’s veto this month, voting 99-51 to override, one away from the 100 needed.
Scott is putting in place a partially paid six-week family leave program for state workers, which private companies could opt into. Meanwhile, O’Brien, a human resources administrator, and other state workers in Vermont can take advantage of a new program that allows parents to bring their infants to the office — if bosses and co-workers agree. But that program expires when the baby turns 6 months old.
The aim of the year-old program is to ease new parents’ transition back to work. But there are restrictions. The environment must be safe for the child, a co-worker must agree to babysit if the employee has to go to a meeting or has to step away for another reason, and the employee’s supervisor has to sign on.
Collegiality is the key. Supervisors try to accommodate workers who want to move their desks because they are unhappy with the possibility of an intermittently crying baby nearby, according to Dan Pouliot, deputy commissioner of human resources in Vermont.
“Our experience is that the novelty factor wears out after about 24-48 hours and everything goes back to normal,” Pouliot said. However, Pouliot said he knew of at least one employee who traded desks with a colleague to get farther away from a little interloper. He said 20 parents have taken advantage of the program in the year it has been in place.
State governments in Arizona, Kansas, Nevada, North Dakota and Washington allow some version of the babies in the workplace program. Arizona has hosted nearly 400 babies in state agency offices, according to the governor’s office.
New Hampshire began accepting paperwork this month for its program, but no one has gone through the process yet, said Ben Vihstadt, a spokesman for Republican Gov. Chris Sununu.
More than 200 private companies and nonprofits also sponsor babies in the workplace programs, according to Massachusetts-based Parenting in the Workplace Institute, a national organization that tracks and advocates for the programs.
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