What Every Working Mom Should Know About Maternity Leave

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maternity leave laws

When you’re a pregnant working mom, you have a lot on your plate. In addition to navigating your pregnancy and balancing your usual work obligations, you have a whole new set of rules to learn regarding pregnancy in the workplace and maternity leave laws.

Like most laws, the pregnancy and maternity leave laws are complex and sometimes difficult to navigate. They don’t all complement one another either. In fact, some may even seem somewhat contradictory. Still, it’s crucial that you know what your maternity leave options are and what protections are available should you exercise those rights.

Below are the seven most important things every working mom should know about maternity leave.

You May Qualify for The Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA)

The Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) is often the first option that comes to mind when people think of maternity leave laws. The law provides certain employees with up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave per year. However, despite its ubiquity, FMLA maternity leave is not available to all workers.

The Family Medical Leave Act applies to all government agencies, all public and private elementary and secondary schools, and private employers with 50 or more employees. If a private employer employs less than 50 employees, its employees are not covered under FMLA.

FMLA permits an employee to have 12 weeks of unpaid leave each year for any of the following reasons:

  • The birth and care of the employee’s child;
  • The adoption or fostering of a child;
  • The care for an immediate family member (spouse, child, or parent) with a serious health condition; or
  • The employee’s inability to work due to a serious health condition.

In such cases, employees are eligible for leave if:

  • (1) they have worked for their employer at least 12 months
  • (2) they have worked for at least 1,250 hours over those 12 months
  • (3) their employer employs 50 or more employees within 75 miles of their workplace (if the employer is a private employer)

A good way to remember this is by thinking of it as the 12:1250:50 rule.

If you take time off from work due to pregnancy complications, that time can be counted against your 12 weeks of FMLA leave. FMLA also provides job protection, so when you return to work, your employer must return you to the same job or an “equivalent” job. FMLA does not guarantee that an employee will have their actual job upon return. According to the Department of Labor, an equivalent job means “a job that is virtually identical to the original job in terms of pay, benefits, and other employment terms and conditions (including shift and location).”

Additional information on FMLA leave can be found at the U.S. Department of Labor’s Guidance on FMLA.

You May be Eligible for Paid Family Leave

Another type of maternity leave available to some working moms is paid family leave. Unfortunately, the United States is the only developed nation in the world that does not offer paid family leave. However, there are four states that have their own paid maternity leave programs: New York, California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island. In 2020, Washington will become the fifth state to offer paid family leave.

If you live in one of the states that offer paid family leave, you can get to know state’s paid family leave program by visiting your state’s program guidelines website. In New York, for example, paid family leave can run concurrently with other types of leave such as FMLA. Employees who exercise their paid leave rights have job protection, ensuring they can return to the same or comparable job when they return from leave. Employees can also keep their health insurance while on leave, and employers are prohibited from discriminating or retaliating against employees for requesting or taking paid family leave.

You May be Eligible for Paid Medical Leave (Short Term Disability or Temporary Disability Insurance)

A common option for working moms taking a maternity leave is short-term disability leave. Short-term disability is an insurance term that refers to a condition that renders you unable to work for a short period of time. This option is frequently utilized by working moms.

There are four different ways to receive short-term disability insurance benefits though they may not all be available to you. Plans are either:

  • (1) administered by the employer;
  • (2) administered by a third-party insurance company;
  • (3) purchased privately by an individual; or
  • (4) administered by your state’s temporary disability insurance program.

Short-term disability plans typically offer six to eight weeks of medical leave, depending on the type of delivery you have. Benefits are paid at less than your full salary, typically two-thirds of your regular wage or salary. Investigate your employee benefits as early as you can so you can explore other options if your employer does not offer a short-term disability benefits plan.

You Might be Able to Utilize Your Paid Sick Leave for Maternity Leave

Depending on your company’s sick leave policies, you may be able to use your sick pay following the birth of your child. Seven states offer paid sick leave: Arizona, California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Oregon, Vermont, Washington, and the District of Columbia. Plus, there are more than two dozen cities that offer this type of leave. Certain types of federal contractors also qualify for leave under an Executive Order signed by President Obama in 2015.

Additional information regarding paid sick leave can be found in this helpful infographic from the U.S. Department of Labor.

Your Employer Might Offer Privately Funded Maternity Leave

If you’re really lucky, your employer may offer paid maternity leave, meaning you would continue to receive a paycheck while you are on leave just as you normally would. Employers are not required to offer employer-funded parental leave though, and a large percentage of employers do not offer this type of leave. Employers cannot offer less than what is legally mandated, but they can offer more, so it will be important for you know what company benefits may be available to you.

In most cases, your best bet for learning about your employer’s policies is your company’s human resources department. They should also be able to provide information related to FMLA, paid family leave (where applicable), and temporary disability insurance benefits. You should also read any employee handbooks—it behooves you to know your company’s policies backward and forward.

Your Maternity Leave May be Protected by The Pregnancy Discrimination Act

The Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) of 1978 is a federal statute that amended Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits employment discrimination on certain bases. The PDA amended Title VII to prohibit sex discrimination on the basis of pregnancy and covers discrimination on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions. In general, the PDA applies only to employers who employ 15 or more employees.

With respect to maternity leave, the PDA’s protections mean that your employer cannot force you to take maternity leave, nor can they penalize you for taking maternity leave. Under the PDA, pregnant workers can work for as long as they can perform their job.

The PDA also requires that pregnant workers also receive the same health, disability, sickness, and other fringe benefits as any other employees who have a medical condition. Pregnant workers are guaranteed job security and benefits during leave to the same extent as other workers similar in their ability or inability to work. This also means, however, that if your employer does not offer job protection and benefits to similarly situated workers, that it will not be required to offer job protection and benefits to you.

You Might Also Have Protection Under State Law

In addition to the federal protection under the PDA, there are state protections available. Get to know your state’s pregnancy anti-discrimination laws since they may avail you of protections you might not have under federal law. For example, although the Pregnancy Discrimination Act applies only to employers who employ 15 or more employees, in New York, the state’s pregnancy anti-discrimination law applies to employers with at least four employees. You’ll definitely want to know if your state offers similar protection. To find the protection available in your state, check out this helpful state-by-state guide from A Better Balance.

Making sense of the maternity leave options and your legal rights can be a challenge, so don’t wait to familiarize yourself with your company’s policies. Remember too that there are agencies that enforce these rules, including the U.S. Department of Labor, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (for concerns related to employment discrimination), and your state’s Department of Labor and human/civil rights commission.

If you find yourself struggling to make sense of maternity leave laws, contact a local attorney who focuses on labor and employment. They’ll be able to answer your questions and help address any concerns you have.

Photo: Getty