Baby in the office? Providence mayor’s habit sparks debate
Providence, R.I. – He has taken his baby to ribbon cuttings and held the child on his lap while testifying at the Statehouse. He balanced the boy at his side at news conferences and rolled him into a closed-door meeting with the governor in a stroller. He installed a bassinet and toy box in his office at City Hall.
Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza has not been shy about bringing his baby to work, and in doing so has ignited a debate about the role of children in the workplace and cast a spotlight on the struggles of balancing a career and child care.
To some, Elorza’s workday appearances with 1-year-old Omar set an example for how to juggle jobs and parenting at a time when many people are working long hours away from their children and paying skyrocketing costs for day care. His detractors say Elorza is using the child as a prop and benefiting from a double standard that would make it impossible for a working mother to do what the mayor is doing.
“I do think that if a female elected official was doing the same thing, the amount of pushback that we would be getting would be huge,” said City Council President Sabina Matos, a fellow Democrat and mom with two school-aged children, adding: “People would say that we’re not capable of doing both jobs.”
Elorza is not the first politician to bring their child to work. New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern last year attended a meeting of the United Nations General Assembly with her infant daughter , who was still young enough to be breastfeeding. In Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser occasionally brings her daughter to events. Illinois Sen. Tammy Duckworth brought her 10-day-old baby to the Senate floor to cast a vote last year – but the chamber had to change its rules to allow it.
What’s new in Elorza’s case is that he has incorporated child care into his job in a way rarely seen in the American public sphere.
His tenure as mayor of Rhode Island’s largest city comes amid a growing movement to let parents bring their babies to work as an alternative to leaving infants at day care for long stretches while they’re still nursing. At least 250 employers have baby programs, including government offices in more than half a dozen states such as Arizona , Washington and Vermont , according to the Parenting in the Workplace Institute, which helps develop and track baby-friendly policies. California is considering a similar policy for state workers.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Elorza said bringing his child to work was a decision that he and his wife, Stephanie Gonzalez, made after assessing their busy, unpredictable schedules. He wants time with his son. And, he says, the cost of day care is too high for their budget.
He and Gonzalez, a law student, were floored by the $350 per week price tag for a day care they toured before Omar was born.
“We can’t afford that,” said the mayor, whose annual salary is $118,000. “I don’t see how most families in our city can afford that.”
Instead, they do what many parents do: Split up child care duties and lean on the baby’s grandmother to help out.
The mayor’s calendars for 2019, disclosed to the AP after a public records request, show that Elorza often spent his Wednesdays out of the office, dialing in to meetings or on Skype calls with department heads, such as the schools superintendent or public safety commissioner.
The mayor confirmed he had been home with the baby on Wednesdays but that now that his son is older and more mobile, working has become more difficult. Now, he spends one morning a week with Omar before handing him off to the boy’s grandmother.
The decision has put Elorza in the hot seat. The head of the teachers union – who is frequently at odds with the mayor – went after him on Twitter, pointing out that teachers don’t get the same opportunity.
Critics also have accused the mayor of being unprofessional and sometimes even inappropriate. It happened when Elorza testified about legislation to strengthen the right to an abortion while holding Omar in his lap. And again, when he brought Omar to a news conference about a shooting and the boy made goo goo noises and a fuss as the public safety commissioner spoke.
Elorza brushes off criticism that he can’t perform his mayoral duties and care for a child as “ridiculous.”
During a meeting with the governor and other mayors on high-stakes legislation one of Elorza’s senior staffers, Director of Communications Emily Crowell, left the room for a phone call, then ended up helping care for the baby outside. Crowell told the AP it was her choice and that she has never been asked to take the baby.
Elorza acknowledged his staff sometimes cares for the child while he works. He said no one had ever lost out on professional opportunities or had to put aside work obligations to do so. He said some staffers have become “like extensions of my family.”
As workplaces around the country try to accommodate working parents without going too far, the Parenting in the Workplace Institute suggests that “babies at work” policies end at six months of age, around the time when babies start to crawl.
Brad Harrington, who leads the Boston College Center for Work and Family and studies the changing role of fathers, said co-workers like to see children in the workplace, but it starts to wear thin if it becomes an everyday event.
Harrington said fathers are often praised more than mothers for being involved parents, but studies have shown that if men do “conspicuous caregiving,” such as saying they are leaving every day at 4:30 to pick up a child, they are marginalized at work.
Harrington, whose center works with Fortune 500 companies, added that depending on co-workers to care for a child is inappropriate.
Elorza said he has tried to support working parents, both in city policy and in his own office. He has put in place a program that offers $5 per week toward summer camps for Providence kids and says he allows people in his office to bring in a child “in a pinch.”
“It’s really brought home how difficult it is to raise a child and not sacrifice your career,” he said.