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.