BARRE, Vt. — Courtney O’Brien’s tiny office at the Vermont Department of Transportation building a few miles from the state capital 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 breastfeeding 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.
Working with a baby — and others
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. Supporters say baby-to-work programs help parents balance their work and family responsibilities. But critics say they can allow public- and private-sector employers to sidestep more substantial benefits.
“This kind of policy is a stopgap for more fundamental solutions like affordable child care, or family and medical leave, and not asking (parents) to make moment-to-moment tradeoffs between the child who may need their attention and the work that they are trying to do a good job at,” said Jessica Mason, senior policy analyst at the National Partnership for Women and Families, which supports family leave policies.
“It’s always great if employers want to innovate and try out new things,” she said, “as long as we don’t confuse it with the bigger picture of supporting all families.”
In New Hampshire, the local chapter of the Service Employees International Union, which represents state workers, slammed the small-bore nature of the program and called it fundamentally unfair.
“Granite Staters need real solutions, Gov. Sununu comes forward with photo opportunities,” said Richard Gulla, the union chapter’s president, in an emailed statement. “Setting aside that this policy isn’t even applicable to many state employees, this policy reads like a half-baked substitute for a much-needed paid family leave plan for ALL Granite Staters.”
Not every job is baby-friendly
State employees who often toil outside the office, such as child welfare workers and bridge inspectors, don’t have jobs suitable for bringing infants along, nor do employees who travel between offices.
Sununu spokesman Vihstadt said in an email that more than 30 state workers have asked to bring their infants into the workplace, an indication that interest in the program is more than cosmetic.
In California, the Legislature overwhelmingly approved a babies in the workplace bill for state employees, but Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, vetoed it in October. He said the bill as written could expose the state to a “high level of risk of lawsuits and should be handled administratively or through collective bargaining.”
State officials this year have begun talking about how to handle such a program, according to Newsom’s office.
In Vermont, supporters of paid family leave laws see babies in the office as a complementary step, rather than a substitute. Opponents of broad family leave laws also view the two as separate. Paying for family leave is expensive and controversial.
Last year Scott introduced a voluntary paid leave program to give Vermont’s 8,500 state employees six weeks of paid leave. Despite a lack of support from the legislature, Scott and the state employees’ union negotiated the paid leave policy in the latest contract.
Those workers would form a pool for an insurance company, spokeswoman Rebecca Kelley said in an email, and the state is accepting bids from insurance companies to run the program. Private businesses could choose to join the program.
State Rep. Robin Scheu, a Democrat who championed the paid family leave bill, described the baby program as a “defensive measure to hold off paid family leave.”
Vermont state Rep. Patricia McCoy, a Republican who opposed the family leave bill, said it wouldn’t have been fair to workers who would have been assessed a fee to support the program but would not have qualified for it. (Part-time workers, for example, may not work enough hours to qualify.)
“It takes money out of their paychecks that they will never be able to access,” she said. “That was a stumbling block for us in the House, along with the fact that the self-employed are not eligible.” She supports the governor’s voluntary plan for state workers.
A half-dozen states — California, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island and Washington — plus the District of Columbia, have paid family leave laws, ranging from four to 12 weeks and covering varying numbers of workers. With or without paid family leave, some workers opt to bring their newborns to work in the states that allow it.
Ryan Darling, a construction paving engineer who works in White River Junction, Vermont, brings his baby, Mason, to work with him under the program. Sometimes family members can watch Mason while Ryan and his wife, Hannah, both 31, are at work, but Mason’s around enough that he has become a fixture. During an interview in Darling’s spare cubicle, a co-worker dropped by just to say, “Hi.” Mason, 5 months old, didn’t seem to mind.
Darling said it’s delightful being able to bring his kid with him. An added benefit is that Ryan’s dad, Melvin, also works at the facility and can drop by frequently, though he’s in the shop and on the road a lot. Neither is a good place for little ones.
Darling said the best part of the program is “being able to see him during the day and watching his new tricks.” But he conceded it’s gotten harder to have the baby around as he’s grown older: He sleeps less and makes more noise.
Both Darling and O’Brien have made day care plans for their infants after their eligibility in the program ends when the kids are 6 months old. It will be another adjustment for both parents and kids.
Darling said he got started a little late with the babies program because he was initially out on construction projects in the summer and fall. Winter means more indoor work, which is better for babies.
“I wasn’t going to take him out on a construction project,” Darling said. “Traveling hundreds of miles a day is no life for a baby.”
O’Brien said at first she was skeptical about bringing her son to the office, but “the closer we got (to coming back to work) the more I felt this was a good opportunity, not just for me but also for the department.” But, she said, “Having a small human around is not always predictable.”