No matter how exciting pregnancy may be, preparing for your infant's arrival -- particularly scheduling your weeks off work after giving birth -- can be stressful, especially when you're fully committed to your job. Though an estimated 2.4 million American workers will give birth this year, the vast majority won't receive paid maternity leave (for example, just 8 percent of private-sector workers get this benefit). Parents must depend on a confusing patchwork of laws and company policies to determine just how much time off they can get post-baby, whether it will be paid, and how long their job will remain protected -- if at all. It's enough to make any levelheaded employee run screaming from her cubicle faster than you can say "epidural."
What's the best thing for a newly pregnant woman to do? Before you start showing or announce the big news to your friends at work, sit down with your partner and figure out what you ideally want and exactly what you're entitled to. Then develop a plan of action that works for both of you.
Learn Your Rights
Familiarize yourself with the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) at www.dol.gov/whd/fmla. A federal law enacted in 1993, the FMLA protects parents' jobs -- without pay -- for up to 12 weeks after the birth or adoption of a child. However, in order to be eligible, you must be employed by a company with at least 50 employees within a 75-mile radius, and you must have worked there roughly 25 hours a week for at least a year.
Next, connect with your regional office of the Women's Bureau at www.dol.gov/wb to find out whether your state has parental-leave laws that go beyond the FMLA. Some states mandate a longer period of leave, extend the FMLA benefits to workers who aren't covered by the act, or even require that certain employers provide paid leave.
Unfortunately, not all companies are bound by either federal or state leave laws. If your employer isn't, don't automatically assume you're out of luck: You may actually be able to turn to the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978, which states that if an organization has 15 or more employees and held another person's job during a different type of medical disability leave, then it must reinstate a woman after medical disability due to pregnancy. You can visit workplacefairness.org and nolo.com to learn more.