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What You Need to Know About Maternity Leave

When Kelly Riley told her boss she was pregnant and needed to work out the terms of her maternity leave, the response wasn't what she expected. She was offered 12 weeks of unpaid leave but told there was no guarantee her job would be held, or that her health insurance would continue. The reason? The 10-person marketing firm she worked for was too small to be required by law to give her leave, and it didn't provide its employees with any wage-protection insurance. "To make matters worse, my doctor ordered bed rest for my last two months," says Riley, who lives in Philadelphia.

Trying to save her job, she agreed to work from home until she delivered. Within days of arriving home from the hospital with her newborn daughter, however, the work began arriving again via e-mail. She soon learned she was expected to work four to five hours a day, starting immediately, even though she was promised time off to care for her baby.

"I was miserable," she recalls. "I was breastfeeding all the time, sleep deprived, and staying up until 2 a.m. to finish work. I was able to retain my benefits, but I was afraid I'd lose them if I didn't do the work." In all, Riley took 10 weeks and was paid hourly for the time she put in, but her experience could hardly be thought of as a maternity leave.

The term "maternity leave" has become so much a part of our common vocabulary that we assume it's a fact of working life. But there is no nationwide standard or law that applies to everyone. To get time off, retain your job, and receive any pay at all, you must rely on a patchwork of federal, state, and individual company policies. The bottom line? You, like Kelly Riley, could fall through the gaps of the system. That's why it's so important to know what you're entitled to in your work situation long before you pack your bag for the hospital.

Unfortunately, the term "maternity leave" can mean many different things, depending where you live and for whom you work. Some of us -- 57 percent -- have a law on our side called the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) of 1993. Here's how it works: FMLA provides new parents -- including fathers and adoptive parents -- with 12 weeks of unpaid leave to care for a newborn or newly adopted child.

When your leave is over, your employer must reinstate you to the same or an equivalent job. And if your employer provides health insurance, the company or organization must continue to provide it during your leave. But to qualify, you must work for a company that employs at least 50 people within a 75-mile radius. On your end, you'll need to have worked for the company a minimum of 12 months and 1,250 hours.

Depending on your company or the state you live in, you may receive medical leave or maternity disability, which refers to the period of time (generally six weeks for a normal vaginal birth, eight weeks for an uncomplicated cesarean delivery) that you are medically unable to work as you recover from childbirth. If you're not covered by FMLA, it's all the time you get. If you have the coverage, this disability period is part of your 12 weeks. In other words, you can't take 6 weeks of medical leave after your baby is born and then tack on 12 weeks of FMLA.

It's a start. "But it still leaves out a lot of people," says Debra Ness, president of the National Partnership for Women & Families in Washington, DC. FMLA leaves many behind; people who are self-employed or who work in small businesses, such as a neighborhood grocery or restaurant. And even if you have both FMLA and medical or disability leave, you may still run into problems.

If you give birth to a preemie who is in the hospital for four weeks after birth, you'll only have the remaining eight to spend with her. And if you have a complicated pregnancy that requires weeks of bed rest, you may use up all of your leave before you even give birth. Ultimately, says Ness, "We're still a long, long way from where we need to be."

Time off is one thing; money is another. In order to get any pay while you're on leave, your company must offer paid leave or provide temporary disability insurance as a benefit; such insurance pays about 60 percent of your wages. Unfortunately, many companies don't do either. Shanna Kiger of Plainfield, Illinois, was fortunate enough to work for a caring company.

"My small public relations firm only employed about 10 people, and I was the very first pregnant employee they'd ever had," she says. "They allowed me to go on paid leave." Kiger received about 60 percent of her pay over three months. "I'm so grateful," says Kiger. "They didn't have to do anything for me."

If you're lucky enough to live in New York, New Jersey, Hawaii, or Rhode Island, you may be eligible for their state-run disability plans, many of which provide about 60 percent of your pay during the first six to eight weeks postpartum that you're medically unable to work (New York provides up to $170 per week maximum). But there's a cap on how much pay you can receive; most states max out at $600 per week.

Law-wise, Californians are the luckiest women of all. Not only does the state boast a state-run disability plan, but it also funds family leave through a $1-per-week payroll deduction. Workers there can get six weeks of family leave insurance payments at about 55 percent of their salary, up to approximately $728 a week. That means that no woman in California has to go for 12 weeks without pay. A new mom could draw on her state disability for her first six to eight weeks postpartum. Then, she would receive family leave insurance until she gets to 12 weeks.

If none of the above situations apply to you, you may be able to use accrued vacation, sick days, or personal days to help you get by. But the option of using sick leave is simply not a reality for many. "Half the workforce has no paid sick days, and only one in six part-time workers has any paid sick leave," says Ellen Bravo, director of 9 to 5, the National Association of Working Women. What's more, some companies don't allow employees to use their sick days to care for others, even a new baby. So for women in the workplace, it makes sense to know your company's policy before your pregnancy so you can plan financially.

As soon as your pregnancy is confirmed, find out your company's leave policy, if you haven't already, and follow these tips.

  • Know your company's track record. Talk to other parents around your company and ask what type of leave they received. If you're the first expectant mother at your company, look at how they handled other types of disability. The legal protection offered by the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 means your company must treat pregnancy the same as any other temporary disability. If your company allows employees to return to the job after a heart attack or an injury from a car accident, or continues their pay while they heal, then it must provide at least the same terms for your disability leave.

    Legal rights aside, it's always good to know how your particular boss has handled other employees' leaves. Some managers consider maternity leave sacred time between you and your child; others have no problem pestering you 10 minutes after you've given birth. Take all of this into consideration when you're figuring out what you want for your leave.
  • Know what you want and ask for it. Your company's leave policy isn't necessarily written in stone; you may be able to get more time than you expected or other perks if you're willing to negotiate. But to do so, you need a clear picture of what you're asking for. If your company doesn't have a formal leave policy or you're unhappy with what's offered, write down exactly what you expect from your employer, including the amount of time you'll need and the pay you want.

    It worked for Jill Overn of Atlanta. She was covered by the FMLA, but her leave ended around Thanksgiving and she wanted extra time. She asked, and her employer agreed to a four-month leave. "My company is the kind that really views its employees as family," she says. But it's important to keep in mind that to your employer, your leave is as much a business situation as it is a personal one, so make the tone of your request friendly, professional, and to the point.

    Once you and your boss have an agreement, tweak your written request accordingly, sign it, date it, and have your boss do the same. If your employer won't put it in writing, you can. You could say, "I wrote down the details of our talk about my leave. Please let me know if I left anything out."
  • Be as helpful as possible. When you meet with your manager to discuss your leave, let her know that you're willing to help get the job done while you're gone. Perhaps you can offer to train a temp or be available for phone consultations. "Don't over-promise," cautions Cindia Cameron, organizing director of 9 to 5. "Don't agree to return before you're able, or offer to be on call. You need time to be with your baby."
  • Be your own cheerleader. If you're not covered by any laws, some short-sighted managers may look at your leave as an opportunity to cut costs. Be sure to prepare yourself for that, says Cameron. Counter that idea armed with reasons why giving you what you want benefits the company; your skills and experience make you a valuable employee. "And your company could easily lose more time and money by letting you go," explains Cameron. "It can take longer than your leave to interview, hire, and train a new person." Hopefully, your careful homework, solid track record, and good attitude will win you the leave you want and deserve.

Amy Zintl is a mother of three and a writer based in New City, New York.

Originally published in American Baby magazine, August 2004.