D.C. Councilmember Christina Henderson explained to the crowd at the National Maternal and Infant Health Summit that she has an “adversarial relationship with a proverb.” The maxim in question? “It takes a village” to raise a child.
Henderson’s beef is with the imagery. The “village” has historically centered godparents, friends, grandparents and so on. But what is oft left out are the systems and institutions — including the American workforce and U.S. employers — that are responsible for creating environments for working parents to thrive.
The D.C. councilmember wove her own story into that of how the U.S. has improved its provisions for working women. She recalled her time as a younger staffer on Capitol Hill in 2009, when Congress went to war over whether the Affordable Care Act should include maternity care. Debates got heated. At one point, Henderson recalled, former Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., said, “I don’t need maternity care. So requiring that on my insurance policy is something that I don't need and will make the policy more expensive.”
Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., quipped, “I think your mom probably did.”
“That amendment [to strike maternity coverage] failed nine to 14, but I was still sitting there stunned. Oh, we’re really not all in the village if we can’t agree that basic maternity care should be covered by your health insurance,” Henderson said.
How HR can build on public benefits
Throughout the “Working Women” section of the summit, led by D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, politicians and parenting advocates called on employers to build on the work of national and regional governments. In the years since Stabenow’s clapback, the District of Columbia began offering 12 weeks of paid parental leave. D.C. offered the benefit starting July 2020, and the federal benefit is now being proposed in President Joe Biden’s FY24 budget plan.
Henderson highlighted that D.C. offers residents prenatal and postpartum support as well as childcare subsidies. Notably, Henderson co-sponsored the bill that became the D.C. Expanding Access to Fertility Treatment Amendment Act. Effective Sept. 6, 2023, the law requires health insurers to cover in vitro fertilization treatment; Henderson was vocal in the past and at the summit about the thousands of dollars that parents-to-be spend on fertility treatments.
Benefits professionals have told HR Dive that workers have kept their pregnancies secret — their struggles even more so. So how do HR teams stop sending the message that “employee” and “parent” are mutually exclusive identities?
Dr. Ayanna Bennett, a speaker at the summit and the freshly appointed acting director of D.C.’s Department of Health, noted the importance of educating professionals on benefits earlier in their careers. For example, she noted, whether insurance covers egg freezing may be a mystery for some workers.
Some employers have taken parenting support a step further by connecting workers with free digital resources — guiding parents-to-be through pregnancies, adoption and other methods of family planning — as a part of their benefits package. Bennett underscored the importance of employers not just complying with labor law, but using it as a springboard for improved employee experience.
HR should protect grieving parents, not just joyful ones
Moderator Ebony McMorris was candid about her own health challenges. Likewise, Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., expounded on her pregnancy loss, which she wrote about in her book “This Is What America Looks Like: My Journey from Refugee to Congresswoman.” She recalled feeling isolated and lonely in her grieving.
“For me, a miscarriage is very much different than birthing. In most cultures, there is a lot of celebration. There is a lot of conversation. There's a lot of excitement when you are pregnant, and you see that pregnancy through and there's a baby,” Omar told the audience.
When expecting parents deal with pregnancy complications, there aren’t customs, conventions or “space” for couples’ families and friends to step in, she said. “We carry a lot of shame. I think because [from the beginning] we, as women … are told one of the things we have to do is give birth,” she continued.
“When we were not able to do that, it’s like you did something wrong,” Omar said.
The pain was also intersectional due to her Somali heritage; the moderator noted that American culture can be cruel as well. Once she started processing her emotions around her pregnancy loss, Omar said, “I didn't feel like there was a village anymore.”
Employers can step up here, too: a benefits professional wrote in an opinion piece to HR Dive that fertility benefits are a talent retention tool. Many companies have set a precedent with bereavement leave or other forms of paid time off to cope with miscarriage.
Compliance is just the groundwork
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is soon set to issue regulations that implement the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, which went into effect June 27.
The commission has given examples of pregnancy accommodations for potential hires and employees. The EEOC also noted that the aforementioned “related medical conditions” can include miscarriages, along with abortion, use of birth control, lactation, endometriosis and fertility care, menstruation, past and future pregnancies, and stillbirths.
Henderson told the summit audience that the village that raises American children should include Congress. “The village includes state capitals, and city council[s] and county councils. The village includes places of work and worship and recreation. We're all in this together,” she said. “Don't let [society] gaslight you or us into thinking that working families are supposed to figure this all out on our own.”