BRATTLEBORO — While the United States rates poorly on both its parental leave and childcare policies, one local company is breaking the mold by trying to improve the lives of new parents. Back Roads Granola and Gluten Free Oats started an infant-at-work program after one of its employees, Erica Shepard, became pregnant with her second child.
"We wanted to do what we could to support her," Virginia Vogel said.
Shepard's daughter, Emmaleigh, has been coming to work with her regularly since she was 3 months old.
Shepard took a three-month maternity leave and said she wasn't sure at first when she'd be coming back. With her first child, Shepard didn't work for the first year after birth; she thought she might do the same with her second, Emmaleigh.
"Three months, for a mom to put a baby in daycare, is really hard," Shepard said.
Vogel and her husband, Peter, didn't want to lose an employee like Shepard, so they drafted a new policy — the infant-at-work program.
"The BRG Infant-at-Work Program encourages new mothers or fathers to return to work sooner by allowing the new parents to bring their infant to work with them until the child is 180 days old or begins to crawl, whichever comes first," the policy states.
Emmaleigh primarily stays in Vogel's office. When other tasks demand Shepard's attention, it's easy for somebody to retrieve her if Emmaleigh needs her. During breaks or office parties other coworkers enjoy playing with Emmaleigh.
"She raises office morale," Vogel said.
Meanwhile, Shepard feels better going to work knowing that her baby is nearby, in case anything happens.
"Erica's happier at work; she's taken more hours," Vogel said. "She knows we support her and Emmaleigh." Since bringing Emmaleigh to work, Shepard has been promoted. She's now the shipping team leader. When she started she was a regular shipping worker.
Shepard said finding daycare before a baby is old enough to crawl is really difficult, and bringing Emmaleigh to work saved her time and money.
"The fact that daycare is so expensive," she said. "I have to really dig my heels in and do some research to find daycare."
Vogel wants to encourage other businesses to implement similar programs.
"It can be done. It's not rocket science," she said.
At Back Roads it's a little easier, Vogel said. The office is mellow. It's easy for Emmaleigh to just sleep, and anyone can watch her if Shepard is busy. Plus, the office space itself is well-suited to the program. There is a quiet room to bring Emmaleigh if she's feeling fussy, there is secluded space for Shepard to breastfeed, and many employees have their own offices that Emmaleigh can hang out in. The policy would be more difficult at a place like the Reformer, for instance, she said. The space is too open and the atmosphere too rowdy.
Vogel does admit that Emmaleigh eats away a little bit at the office's productivity.
At the beginning of Emmaleigh's stay at the Back Roads office, employees developed a habit of pushing work aside in favor of caring for her, Vogel said.
"It's a little difficult to hold a meeting if she's in the room because she's just so cute," Shepard said.
But, Vogel said, the minor distraction was worth the many benefits.
Shepard isn't the only employee who feels supported by Back Roads, even though she's the only one who has used the Infant-at-Work program so far.
Barbara Cliche, the company's finance manager, said she was able to bring her grandchildren to work with her when family disaster had struck.
"Back Roads is unique," she said. "It's a Back Roads family. If you take care of your employee they'll be loyal and dedicated. Companies need to take a better approach to supporting families in the workplace. If families got more support morale would improve."
Harmony Birch can be reached at email@example.com, at @Birchharmony on Twitter and 802-254-2311, Ext. 153.