A recent article in the New York Times seems to confuse corporate perks with what should be corporate priorities. In “The Calorie-Packed Perk,” Molly Young wrote about the many perks high tech start-ups offer employees: birthday cake, barbecue, Pinkberry, pinball machines, nursing rooms and “lactation consultants.” (Quotation marks hers, not mine.)
According to BusinessDictionary.com, a perk is a privilege “granted to employees in addition to their salaries and benefits (such as medial and pension plans). True perks have little or no cash value or tax implications and may include company car, vacations, reserved parking space, spacious office, private dining and washroom facilities, etc.”
Company cars and preferred parking spots are nice to have. Pinkberry and pinball machines are fun to have. Nursing rooms are neither of those things; they are required by law. Under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, employers must provide time and a private, non-bathroom place for nursing mothers to express breast milk. The New York Times may have missed that memo.
But what about things that aren’t required by law? With 23 million mothers in the workforce, what should companies offer as perks and what benefits should they simply make a priority if they want to get the best their employees have to offer?
When I returned to work after the birth of my children and before healthcare reform, my company offered free coffee and bagels, but it didn’t have a nursing room. I pumped in an electrical closet. When my second child was born, the company I worked for had plenty of wine on hand for Friday afternoon socials, but the only place I could find to pump was in a shared coed bathroom. I had to work for financial reasons so the lack of working mother “perks" wasn’t going to push me out of the workforce. But I wonder how much happier, and therefore productive I might have been if returning to work was less challenging? I changed jobs one year after both of my children were born – at a cost to my career trajectory and my employers who were left with the recruiting and training costs that come with employee turnover. Would I have moved on if balancing work and babies had been easier? Maybe. Maybe not.
What if I could have afforded to take a leave longer than eight weeks? The United States is one of only four countries that doesn't offer paid leave to new mothers and I wasn’t covered by the Family Medical Leave Act at either company. What if I had the flexibility to set my hours based on my new reality? I did have paid sick time, unlike many workers in the private sector, so that helped when my son came down with croup. That benefit, however, was offset by a boss who told me the illness would be the first of many challenges that would eventually make me crumble and quit.
Free snacks and happy hours – these are perks. Paid maternity/paternity leave, flexible work options, and paid sick leave – these should be priorities. When is corporate America going to realize mothers work and therefore start working to support them?
Liz O'Donnell is the founder of Hello Ladies and the author of Mogul, Mom & Maid: The Balancing Act of the Modern Woman.