If you are a working woman who is expecting a baby or are considering getting pregnant in the near future, it's important to educate yourself about the various factors that impact how long you'll be able to take off from work after your baby is born and how doing so may affect your compensation. It's important to know your company's policy regarding maternity leave, as well as how issues associated with disability and unemployment may impact you.
Maternity Leave Is a Matter of Policy and Law
The issue of determining how much maternity leave you can take is a complicated one that is based on both legal requirements and the policies of your employer. Understanding the facts can help you make an informed decision.
While some employers are legally obligated to provide employees with time off from work for maternity leave, this is not always the case. In most U.S. states, only those companies that fall under Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) guidelines are required to provide leave specifically related to becoming a parent, or for any other kind of illness.
Note that state laws may provide additional protections in some cases. For example, California and Massachusetts have state-specific additional laws that provide protection for expectant and new parents beyond what FMLA mandates on a federal level; see California Maternity Leave and Mass.gov to learn more about requirements in those locations. Check with the Department of Labor in your state to see if there are any state-specific requirements in your area. See DOL.gov to find contact information for the Department of Labor in your state.
Company Policy Considerations
When you want to find out how much maternity leave you will be able to take, the first thing you need to do is find out what your company's policy is.
The topic of maternity leave may be covered in the personal time off (PTO) section of your handbook, a maternity leave section, or another section that addresses various types of leave that the company may allow for. If your company is required to follow FMLA or a related state-specific law, it's likely that this topic is also covered in the FMLA Leave or Medical Leave section of your handbook.
If your company isn't obligated under the law to provide FMLA leave and doesn't have a specific policy regarding maternity leave, you'll need to use your vacation time and/or PTO when you are off from work, being sure to follow the company's application and documentation procedures. You may also be able to negotiate additional unpaid time off with your supervisor or other company official, but the company is not obligated to grant such requests.
Family Medical Leave Act Overview
Companies that are covered under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) are required to provide eligible employees with up to 12 weeks off from work for the birth and care of a newborn child, as well as when a child is placed with an eligible employee for foster care or adoption.
Requirements for FMLA
There are very specific requirements that determine whether companies are covered under FMLA and if an employee is eligible for this type of leave.
- Companies, public agencies and schools with 50 or more employees are FMLA-covered entities.
- FMLA requirements apply only to company locations where at least 50 people are employed within a 75 mile radius.
- Must work for a covered company at a covered location
- Must have been with the company for a total of at least 12 months (consecutive or not)
- Must also have worked at least 1,250 hours within the last twelve months
Both Parents Are Covered
It's important to be aware that FMLA leave associated with childbirth, adoption and foster situations applies to both mothers and fathers. If you and your husband work for the same company, look very closely at your company's policy. The law allows companies that employ both mother and father to limit this type of FMLA to 12 weeks split between both parents (instead of separate 12-week periods for each parent) if they choose to do so.
FMLA Compensation Considerations
FMLA leave is unpaid. If you are eligible for FMLA, look closely at your company's FMLA policy. Most organizations require employees to take this type of leave concurrent with any other accrued leave, such as vacation time or PTO, which works to your advantage. With concurrent vacation/PTO and FMLA, you'll be compensated for part of your leave. For example, if you have ten PTO or vacation days that you take at the beginning of your leave, you'll be paid for those days and the remaining of your leave will be unpaid, unless your company has a policy of providing compensation during leave associated with childbirth.
Note that it is very rare for U.S. companies to provide paid maternity leave, though many do allow employees to enroll in short-term-disability insurance plans that provide a level of income protection related to childbirth.
To learn more about FMLA, see the Family & Medical Leave page on the U.S. Department of Labor's website.
Disability Insurance Considerations
Many short-term disability (STD) insurance plans provide income protection for time lost from work due to childbirth. If you are enrolled in your company's short-term disability insurance plan, chances are that you will be able to apply for benefits during the time you are off from work. While these policies don't provide 100 percent income coverage and typically don't start until you have been unable to work for a few weeks, the funds they do provide can be invaluable.
Discuss the specifics of your policy with your company's benefits representative or a customer service agent with the insurance provider to find out exactly what you are eligible for and to find out how to apply.
If you are already pregnant and didn't have a STD plan in place prior to getting pregnant, adding a policy now is not likely to result in benefits. However, if you are not yet pregnant and do not have short-term disability coverage, now is a good time to get it.
If your company does not offer a STD plan, or if the open enrollment period is too far away, consider taking out an individual policy from Aflac or another company that offers this type of coverage. Be sure, of course, that any policy you are considering provides childbirth-related coverage and make sure that you know what kind of elimination period there is before pregnancy-related coverage will be in effect once you add the policy.
Unemployment Compensation Considerations
While it may be natural to wonder if you will be eligible for unemployment during the time that you are off from work due to childbirth, the answer is "no". Unemployment compensation provides income protection for individuals who lose their jobs due to layoffs, company closings and other circumstances that are completely beyond the workers' control and who are immediately available to go to work and are actively looking for employment. Pregnancy and childbirth-related income losses do not qualify.
Prepare for Pregnancy- and Childbirth-Related Leave
Once you are clear on the company policies and legal requirements that apply in your particular situation, you'll need to begin making plans. Communicate with your supervisor and/or your company's human resources representative to be sure that you take care of all necessary documentation in plenty of time to ensure that your leave request can be processed efficiently and effectively. The last thing you'll want to have to deal with in the last few days before your baby is born is paperwork problems related to the leave that you want to take.