Sara Knoper, CPA, didn't know how the small firm where she worked would take the news that she was pregnant.
"I was nervous to tell them," said Knoper, a tax manager at Baker Holtz, a CPA and advisory firm in Grand Rapids, Mich., with 18 employees. But the response from firm leaders calmed her: "We're here to support you" and "Do whatever you need to during this time."
Smaller firms face difficult choices as they decide how to handle family leave and support staff as they transition back into the office. They don't automatically fall under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, which applies to businesses with 50 or more employees. But many smaller firms are competing for talent against larger firms that are required to comply with the FMLA, which mandates that eligible employees receive up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave.
Some large firms offer lengthy paid leave packages or other benefits that smaller firms simply may not be able to afford, said Sharon Trabbic, who is vice chair of the board of directors of the CPA Firm Management Association and has written about how smaller firms can become baby-friendly.
But there's a plus side. "Smaller firms are nimbler," said Trabbic, who is also chief operating officer at William Vaughan Co., a public accounting firm in Maumee, Ohio. Trabbic says small firms can update policies quickly, and they know each one of their employees and what they need.
Here are some ways smaller firms can support team members when it comes to family leave:
Permit flexible schedules with remote options. Knoper has taken two maternity leaves at Baker Holtz, where she has worked for 11 years since graduating from college. She used personal time off (PTO) and short-term disability for both; her son is 2 now and her daughter is 5.
What stood out was how flexible the firm was with her schedule. "There was no pressure to come in if I wasn't feeling well," Knoper said. "I had a lot of doctor appointments, and I never had any issues leaving early or coming in later."
She was also able to work remotely when needed. And after the 12 weeks of leave when her daughter was born, she transitioned back by working part time for two months. "Having that flexible schedule and being able to be part time during that period was a huge help," said Knoper, who returned full time after 12 weeks of leave when her son was born.
Consider paid leave. When a senior bookkeeper at WSW needed to be away from the office for roughly two months to help with a daughter's medical condition, the firm reassigned some of her clients to make it possible, said Julia Johnson, director of operations for WSW, a 25-employee CPA firm in Nashville, Tenn.
There were days the employee didn't work and others when she put in a few hours remotely. WSW continued paying her for 40 hours a week and didn't dock her PTO balance for the hours she was short. "We simply took care of her while she was taking care of her family," Johnson said.
Be compassionate. One day last year, Meagan DenOuden, CPA, called her employers at BNA, a CPA and advisory firm in Rock Hill, S.C., to say she needed time off for a serious illness that remains symptomatic. It was her second year with BNA, which has 26 employees.
"They told me to take care of myself," she said. "Not having that extra stress of wondering if my job was still going to be there or not, that was the biggest blessing."
At first, she took two weeks using PTO hours before returning to work. But she soon realized she needed more time to recover, so she took a month of medical leave using short-term disability.
"My doctors were concerned with how my work was going to react, but the understanding I was shown was amazing," DenOuden said. "They told me my health was most important, and my co-workers all rallied around and made sure I had what I needed."
Offer support after leave ends. Trabbic suggests having a dedicated space at the office — with comfortable chairs and a separate storage refrigerator — where new moms can pump breast milk. Firms are required by law to provide a dedicated room for nursing mothers, though workplaces with fewer than 50 employees can be exempt if it is too difficult to provide the space.
Stay connected. While DenOuden was on medical leave, she often heard from co-workers. "It was definitely comforting knowing that I had people checking on me and ready for me to come back," she said. "I still felt like part of the team."
Bernie Ackerman, CPA/PFS, CGMA, founder of BNA, kept in touch with DenOuden's mother and husband. "We truly believe our culture is family oriented," Ackerman said, adding that it promotes extremely low turnover. "All our team members are concerned about each other."
DenOuden plans on staying put. "I have no intentions of leaving after the way they treated me," she said. "It's really just been like family."
Anslee Wolfe is a freelance writer based in Colorado. To comment on this article or suggest an idea for another article, contact Chris Baysden, associate director – content development, at Chris.Baysden@aicpa-cima.com.