Maternity Leave

The time has come and the birth of your baby is drawing near. The nursery is suitably decorated, you have all the necessary supplies, and you could probably teach your own class on breathing techniques. But are you as prepared for changes in your work life? If you are a working mom, knowing where your employer stands on maternity leave is crucial for protecting yourself against any unexpected hurdles after the baby is born.

What is maternity leave?
Maternity leave, also known as parental (or paternity) leave, refers to the time off work a parent takes to care for their child either during or after pregnancy. While some companies do offer paid maternity leave, the law only covers mothers for 12 weeks of unpaid leave with guaranteed job security. This law, called the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), however, does not secure jobs at smaller companies.

In fact, the United States offers comparatively little to mothers and fathers trying to balance work and parenthood. In Sweden, for example, a mother is eligible for 16 months of parental leave split between herself and her partner, while still receiving 80% of her pay.

It is important to be aware, however, that certain states offer more comprehensive maternity leave options than others. California, for example, is one of few states to offer paid leave (about 55% of your pay for six weeks), while some 20 states offer varying degrees of job-protected maternity leave. In any case, most women will opt to use a combination of short-term disability (STD), sick leave, vacation pay, personal days as well as the parental leave guaranteed by FMLA while they are away.

Many large companies and unions as well as some states offer STD. This will cover a certain percentage of your salary for time in which you are forced to be away due to illness, injury or childbirth. If you find that the portion of coverage you will receive is inadequate, or if you do not have STD, you can seek out private insurance for which you will pay a premium. The portion of you pay you will receive in any case depends on how many years you have worked for the company.

When does it become effective and when does it expire?
Many short-term disability and parental leave programs will require that you take a week off prior to receiving compensation. Some may also require that you use up the vacation and personal days you have accumulated in order to become eligible for compensation, which does carry with it the advantage of those days being fully paid for.

When it will expire depends on the type of coverage you have. Most programs will offer six weeks of paid leave, and some may offer up to eight if there are complications due to cesarean section or the need to be bedridden. However, the time you expect to take off needs to be accounted for early on, as most programs require that you supply advanced notice in writing in order to be eligible for leave. Also, you may choose to take whatever personal, vacation sick days you have, which can also be used in combination with the FMLA leave, which guarantees 12 weeks of unpaid leave.

What the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA)?
The Family Medical Leave Act is a federal law that was passed in 1993 by the U.S. Department of Labor's Employment Standards Administration. The law specifies the terms and conditions under which an "eligible" employee becomes entitled to job leave. FMLA applies to employers of all levels of government agencies, schools and private companies who employ more than 50 people for 20 weeks or more of the calendar year and are in some way involved in commerce.

The law requires that you be entitled to a total of 12 weeks unpaid leave during a 12-month period. These 12 weeks must be taken within one year after you have given birth or received a placement for adoption. In fact, you and your partner are each entitled to 12 weeks of FMLA leave, which you may choose to take at the same time, in overlapping times or consecutively. If the same company employs you and your partner, however, you will be entitled to a combined total of 12 weeks.

In some cases, you may be entitled to take your leave intermittently (which means taking it in certain chunks of time, or reducing your work schedule), however, this option is only guaranteed if you are taking time off for a serious medical condition. Otherwise, whether or not you will be offered intermittent leave is at the discretion of your employer.

With regards to heath benefits and insurance plans, the FMLA requires your employer to maintain this coverage on the same terms as before the leave was taken, so in most cases you will need to continue supplementing your health insurance while your are away (meaning you will need to pay what was previously being deducted from your paycheck). If, however, you decide not to return to work after your FMLA leave, your employer may stop paying the premiums and in some cases require you to pay back the money spent on maintaining your benefits during your leave. Furthermore, your employer is not obliged to allow you to continue accruing time toward vacations or seniority while you’re away.

Once an employee returns to work after FMLA leave, the law stipulates that they be returned to their original job or another job of equivalent pay and job status. Also, FMLA leave cannot result in the loss of any benefits being earned prior to the leave.

At any rate, you will only receive the FMLA leave if you give your employer 30 days advanced notice in writing. Depending on your employer, you may also be required to provide medical certification and/or to report back regularly during your leave to inform your employer of your condition and your plans to return to work. While it is not recommended that you notify employer in the first trimester (due to greater risk of complications) it is strongly suggested that your talk to your boss as soon as possible regarding your plans for maternity leave. The sooner you begin the discussion and the more organized you are in your planning, the more leverage you will have for negotiating your leave.

Unfortunately, pregnancy discrimination still exists, therefore it is important you know your rights and discuss them clearly and openly with your employer.

Who is entitled to it?
You are eligible for the FMLA benefits if you:

  • work for a covered employer;
  • have been an employee for a minimum of one full year;
  • during that year you have worked for at least 1,250 hours;
  • work out of the United States for a company employing a minimum of 50 people.

If you are considered a "key" employee (meaning you are among the 10% highest paid employees), however, and your employer can demonstrate that your absence would result in the loss of substantial profit to the organization, they are not required to keep your job.

What is parental and paternity leave and how do they differ from the FMLA leave?
For those who are not eligible for the FMLA leave, parental leave may be an option. Parental leave differs from the FMLA leave in the following ways: parental leave time may begin only after the birth of the baby (or after formal placement of adoption); the 12-week entitlement may only be taken continuously (not intermittently); and, the employee is not covered for insurance during the leave.

Paternity leave, on the other hand, refers specifically to the time a father takes off work to care for his child. An eligible father is entitled to the same rights as a mother under FMLA, but when it comes to individual company policies, fathers are generally not given the same number of leave options as mothers. This may partly be due to misconceptions and ignorance on the part of a company, but social stigmas are more likely responsible. It is not so much that a company is less likely to offer a man paid leave to care for his child, but rather that a father is less likely to ask for it, although there are signs perceptions are changing.

For more information on your rights and obligations for maternity leave, check with your state’s department of labor. And remember to find out your company’s policies on paid leave as soon as possible. The more you know, the less stressful the process will be.

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