Industry Issues

Navigating Pregnancy and Maternity Leave in the Drinks Industry

Paid maternity leave is still a rarity, but some forward-thinking companies are setting the bar

Illustration of a pregnant woman in a jungle
It’s a jungle out there for pregnant women and mothers working in the drinks industry. Photo illustration by Jeff Quinn.

Three years ago, when Chelsey Smith took a job at the Jack Daniel’s bottling plant in Lynchburg, Kentucky, she had no idea what the policy on maternity leave was. “I didn’t have a clue about it until I was pregnant,” says Smith, now 26. So when she and her husband, Drew, a truck driver for the company, learned they were pregnant with their first child last year, they were happily surprised to discover that Brown-Forman (the owner of Jack Daniels’s) had a progressive parental leave policy: Chelsey was entitled to 12 weeks of paid leave, and Drew, as the non-birth parent, was due six weeks, paid.

Brown-Forman’s parental leave policy proved crucial for the new parents. Chelsey had complications during labor—the epidural caused part of her left leg to remain numb—and she came home from the hospital on crutches. In addition to pediatrician visits, Chelsey had to see a neurologist several times and have an MRI. (The cause of the numbness is still a mystery.) The extra appointments would have been impossible if Drew wasn’t also home and able to drive the family.

“When I came home from the hospital, I was on crutches and couldn’t put my foot on the ground. Drew did everything: bathed me, cooked supper, went grocery shopping, did dishes and laundry—the list goes on,” she says. And because Brown-Forman’s policy allows the non-birth parent to take his (or her) six weeks any time over the first six months of the baby’s life, Drew can reserve a week or two for when Chelsey returns to work.

Drew, 32, realizes how rare paid paternity leave is in the United States and says he can’t imagine not having this benefit. “Those nights of hardly any sleep are much easier to deal with,” he says, “when you don’t have to worry about getting up on time in the morning.” And the time he’s been home with Chelsey and their daughter, Megan, has brought them closer as a family. “I sure am glad I was there the first time that little girl smiled,” Drew says. “I would’ve missed that and many other memories without these benefits.”

family photo of chelsey, drew, and megan lee smith
Chelsey, Drew, and Megan Lee Smith. Photo courtesy of Drew Smith.

Brown-Forman—which also makes brands such as Woodford Reserve, Sonoma-Cutrer wines, and Finlandia vodka—has one of the best parental leave policies in the alcohol industry.

“Their parental leave policy is fantastic. And their paternity leave is the highest I’ve seen,” says Deborah Brenner, the founder and president of Women of the Vine & Spirits, a membership organization dedicated to the support of women in the alcoholic beverage industry.

“It was a topic that mattered a lot to me,” says Kirsten Hawley, Brown-Forman’s chief human resources officer. “It came from conversations with women who were trying to make hard choices between staying at home to bond with a newborn baby or coming back to work so they could earn an income. And also talking to dads about their desire to stay home with their newborn child longer than they had the opportunity to.” At the time, the company already offered decent parental leave—two weeks, paid, for dads, and six weeks, paid, for moms—but it was covered by a short-term disability insurance policy. Hawley thought the company could do better. She says, “We decided to not treat childbirth as a disability.”

The revised policy, which kicks in after a year of employment, also makes no distinction between fathers and same-sex partners—the “non-birth parent” can be male or female. “We wanted to be sure that our leave addressed today’s modern families,” Hawley says. It also covers adoptive parents and foster parents, giving them six weeks of paid leave. It covers all Brown-Forman’s salaried workforce and hourly nonunion employees.

Needless to say, this is not the norm in the alcohol industry. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ 2016 National Compensation Survey, the leisure/hospitality sector has among the lowest rates—6 percent—of access to paid family leave. (That category includes restaurants and hotels, though not bars.) The only category to fare worse was the construction industry. Manufacturing, which includes companies that make alcoholic beverages, was slightly higher, at 10 percent.  

“The restaurant industry is not flexible, and it doesn’t put any value on families or mothers,” says Jessica Brown, 34, who oversees the food and beverage program at JetBlue. Brown should know. She had worked for two years as the wine director for a notable New York restaurant group when, soon after she’d told her direct supervisor she was pregnant, her position was eliminated. “It’s unclear whether the owners knew about my pregnancy when my position was eliminated,” she says, “but it was definitely a shock.” Not that the company offered any paid parental leave anyway.

Brown spent months applying for jobs in the industry and had some positive interviews, but once she disclosed that she was pregnant, in each case she was told (later, by the various HR staffs at the places she applied) that the employer had decided not to fill the position. Ultimately, she was able to parlay her food and beverage experience into a “day job” at JetBlue.

But maternity leave is also not the norm in any industry: A mere 15 percent of workers in the U.S. have access to paid leave, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ most recent data. That lack of paid time off means that one in four employed mothers returns to work two weeks after giving birth.

Five states—California, New Jersey, New York, Washington, and Rhode Island—and the District of Columbia have passed paid family leave laws, but many other states offer just six weeks of paid leave at partial salary, which any woman who has given birth says is barely enough time (or money). Still, it is better than the unpaid leave mandated by federal law. The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) requires all businesses with more than 50 employees to offer new moms and dads 12 weeks of unpaid leave. (To get this “benefit,” though, you have to be full-time and have been with your company for a year.) Crucially, the FMLA also offers job protection: Your employer must offer you the same job when you return to work, or one that is nearly identical, with identical pay and benefits.  

But what if you’re pregnant and you work for a small employer, like a restaurant, cocktail bar, or small wine importer? “You hope to win the lottery,” says Kate Newhall, the policy director at Family Forward Oregon, a politically savvy nonprofit that advocates for family-friendly policies in the state.

Family Forward Oregon spearheaded the campaign for a statewide paid sick leave bill, which was signed by Governor Kate Brown in 2015, and it is one of the leading organizations behind Time for Oregon, a coalition fighting for paid family and medical leave in the state. A bill to provide such leave was introduced in the 2017 legislative session, but it didn’t pass. Newhall is confident, however, that it will be on the agenda again in 2018, saying, “We’re in it to win it!”  

Until Oregon passes a paid family leave bill, it is one of the 45 states where new mothers have to fend for themselves—or rely on family. When Sonia Kehler, 44, a bartender in Portland, was pregnant with her daughter Vela, her boss at Captain Ankeny’s bar gave her six weeks off, unpaid. Kehler survived financially because her partner, also a bartender, was able to find a better-paying day job and because her father babysat Vela when she went back to work. She was able to pump breast milk in an employee bathroom. Having been a bartender for years, Kehler wasn’t surprised by the lack of any kind of paid maternity leave. She says, “I never even asked.”

Rare is the independently owned bar or restaurant that can afford to offer paid maternity leave. Liz Davis, the owner and manager of Xico, a Mexican restaurant in Portland with 25 employees, has offered health insurance to all employees—even those who work only part-time—since the day the restaurant opened five years ago. But paid maternity leave is another matter. “Our profit margin is so small, and we actually can’t operate with one less server,” says Davis. “We’d have to replace her. So it becomes a situation where we’re paying two people.” But after reading Hillary Clinton’s book What Happened (Simon & Schuster) and thinking about the issue at length, Davis decided to offer one week of paid maternity leave. “I know that’s nothing,” she says, “but for [my employees], it’s the difference between being able to pay rent that month and not.”  

In states like California, which was the first in the nation to pass a paid family leave law, in 2002, restaurant owners aren’t faced with this tough decision, because the state pays for the leave through a worker-funded insurance program. Jacquelyn Dowell, 33, is a bartender at Oakland’s Ramen Shop. When she told her boss she was pregnant, he was very supportive.

“He sat me down and said, ‘What shifts are gonna be good for you? I just want you to be comfortable,’” Dowell says. “So that was amazing.”

Six weeks before her due date, Dowell was racked with false labor pains, and her doctor told her not to return to work. California’s short-term disability program covered her at 55 percent of her salary for six weeks, and the state’s then Paid Family Leave covered another six weeks off, also at 55 percent of her salary.

Was that enough to live on in the high-rent Bay Area? “Not at all—not even close,” Dowell says. But fortunately, Dowell’s husband, Kevin, works for a small spirits company, The 86 Co., and he was allowed a month and a half of paternity leave at his full salary. Knowing that most bartenders in the U.S. don’t receive any pay during maternity leave makes Dowell feel lucky. “Yet I feel that what I received wasn’t enough,” she says. “It’s super unfair. It’s just crazy to me that pregnancy isn’t covered.” Last year, California governor Jerry Brown signed a bill that will increase the Paid Family Leave payment to 70 percent of a minimum wage worker’s salary. (Workers with higher pay will get 60 percent of their salary.)  The new coverage will take effect in 2018.

Companies in the alcoholic beverage industry that are truly family-friendly, like Brown-Forman and The 86 Co., are few and far between. Some leading wine and spirits distributors offer paid leave, but only to members of the sales team. (This recalls Starbuck’s recent fiasco: Earlier this month shareholders objected that a new, 18-week parental leave policy was only for salaried workers, whereas hourly workers receive only six weeks.)

Diageo, the British multinational spirits and beer company (Smirnoff, Johnnie Walker, Guinness) whose U.S. offices are based in Norwalk, Connecticut, has made Working Mother’s list of 100 Best Companies for the past nine years. In addition to subsidizing day care, the company offers job-sharing, flextime, and a decent parental leave policy. All full-time employees who have worked a year for the company—even fathers and adoptive parents—are eligible for four weeks of paid leave.

One restaurateur who is helping set the bar for paid family leave is Danny Meyer at Union Square Hospitality Group. Last fall he announced an eight-week parental leave program at all 16 of his restaurants and bars that applies equally to birth parents and non-birth parents. The program covers full-time employees who have been with the company for at least one year, and gives four weeks at 100 percent of the base wage, and another four weeks at 60 percent. Of course, this means that workers at restaurants that still accept tipping will not get tips while they’re out, but the base wage at USHG restaurants is still higher than the tipped minimum wage in New York City. (Similarly, workers who take advantage of this leave at the group’s nine Hospitality Included restaurants—that is, restaurants that have abolished tipping—would not get revenue share, but their base wage is higher than the current New York City minimum wage of $11 an hour.)  

But the majority of companies in the alcohol industry don’t offer paid parental leave for the simple reason that they don’t have to. Kat Kelly, now 38, was pregnant when she took a job as import manager at Baron Francois, a French wine importer. (She did not disclose she was pregnant in her interview because she feared she would not be hired if they knew.) She says her boss presented the company as family friendly in her interview, but he offered her only six weeks off, unpaid, when she gave birth. (Because she hadn’t been at the company for a full year, and because Baron Francois had 20 employees at the time, Kelly was not entitled to any time off under the FMLA.) Luckily, she had applied for short-term disability and so got a tiny portion of her salary. But just a month into her six-week leave, Kelly says she felt pressured by the company to work from home.

“Psychologically, I wasn’t ready. And I don’t think I’d physically healed from the C-section,” says Kelly, who returned to work exhausted. “I was forgetting things, feeling overwhelmed.” The only place she could pump her breast milk was in one of two single staff bathrooms, and coworkers were always knocking on the door. To top it off, she also felt pressured to go to evening wine events and drink a lot. “I wanted to be like, ‘Oh, I’m still cool,’” Kelly says. “But I wasn’t able to do that anymore.” She eventually left Baron Francois—and the wine industry—to work at NARS Cosmetics, which she says is a truly family-friendly company. “They have a nice, big pumping room,” she says. “Women have babies, and that’s a natural part of life.”

Kylie Henshaw, human resources coordinator at Baron Francois says the company still doesn’t have a formal maternity leave policy, but in January it will be subject to New York state’s new Paid Family Leave Program, which requires that all companies offer eight weeks of leave to new mothers and fathers, paid at 50 percent of her or his salary. (The Program covers full-time and part-time employees; full-time employees must work at least 26 weeks, or six-and-a-half months, at a company to be covered; part-time employees must work at least 175 days to be covered. The Program also covers employees who need to care for a sick relative.) Henshaw says the company has since moved to a new office space and now has a private room in which new mothers can pump.

But until all states start passing paid family leave policies like California and New York’s—or bars, restaurants, and alcoholic beverage companies start issuing more progressive maternity leave policies on their own—the drinks industry will continue to lose some of its best employees.   

“One of the main problems that the restaurant industry has right now is maintaining qualified employees,” Jessica Brown at JetBlue says. To her, it is no surprise why.

“They’re losing a tremendous number of seasoned professionals because they don’t support families or any type of maternity leave.” Employees who have been with a company for a long time are, she says, “put out to pasture” just because they decide to start a family. “The industry has to take a hard look at this issue in general. They need to look at the Big Picture.”


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Hannah Wallace writes about food, wine, sustainable agriculture, health, and travel for, Inc., Food & Wine, Vogue, Portland Monthly, and the New York Times.

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