Memphis company allows babies at work

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — At Meritan’s Memphis headquarters, quality improvement manager Johanna Brooks’ office shows all the signs of a busy Monday morning.

Papers are stacked on her desk, her computer is up and running, her e-mail inbox awaits her attention … and her 6-month-old son, Asher, plays happily in his nearby crib.

Asher’s presence at the office isn’t the result of a parenting schedule conflict or a day care dilemma — it’s an everyday occurrence.

In March, Meritan — a nonprofit agency that provides a variety of home health, personal care and child placement services in four states — implemented its Infant at Work program, which allows new parents to bring their babies to work during the first nine months.

“I’m a mother, so I know how important and difficult it can be to balance family and work,” said Meritan president Deborah Cotney. “In the long run, this program pays dividends for the company because it attracts and retains talent and results in satisfied, loyal employees.”

Women comprised 46.5 percent of the total U.S. labor force in 2008 and are projected to account for 47 percent of the labor force in 2016, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Seventy-five percent of employed women last year worked in full-time jobs.

“Our work force here is 86 percent women, and most of those women also still bear the bulk of the responsibility at home,” Cotney said. “We are an organization that serves families. Offering new parents an opportunity to spend more time with their babies without giving up their jobs made sense for what our organization stands for.”

During the eight months since Meritan introduced the Infant at Work program, five employees, including one father, have participated.

While the initial thought of such a program may evoke images of howling babies and surrounding employees holding their heads in anguish, it hasn’t been a problem so far.

If babies get rowdy or need to nurse, parents must take them to a secluded quiet room. Sick infants must stay home. Babies must be supervised at all times, even if it means enlisting a coworker’s help while the parent takes a break. And children only can participate in the program until they turn 9 months old or begin to crawl.

“We’ve had no complaints so far,” Cotney said. “In fact, it’s been amusing to watch the employees gravitate to the children. People enjoy stopping by to say ‘hello’ to the babies or hold them. It has boosted morale.”

Based on the organization’s research, Meritan is one of about 70 companies nationwide to offer this benefit. In addition to studying similar programs across the country, Cotney also did extensive groundwork before introducing Infants at Work.

“Our board, including a human resources specialist, had a very practical discussion first. We weighed the pros and cons carefully,” she said.

Subsequently, Meritan sought input from its insurance company. Because high liability insurance already is a necessity for a health care organization such as Meritan, additional costs were minimal.

A companywide employee survey followed, and the feedback was positive, Cotney said.

“In general, employees appreciate it when they see that their company is striving to find ways to make their lives easier,” she said.

Participating mother Brooks, 29, says her life definitely is easier. She was six months pregnant when Meritan announced the new program.

“At that time, the panic had set in,” she said. “My main concern was, ‘Am I really going to be able to juggle a baby and work?’ They told us about the program and I was so relieved. When I went home and told my husband, he was in shock.

“This program has saved us about $7,000 in day care costs and given us so much peace of mind. And as a first-time mother, it was particularly nice for me — I always felt like eight weeks of maternity leave wasn’t going to be enough.”

Erin Figg/The Commercial Appeal