The Fight For Better Maternity Leave

The Crucial Steps to a Better Leave

Here's what you need to do to get the best possible deal from your employer: First, know what you're entitled to. You're covered by FMLA if your company has at least 50 employees working within a 75-mile radius. You must have worked at the company for a year or more and put in at least 1,250 hours in the 12 months before the leave. Check your employee handbook to find out whether your employer's plan is more generous than that. But don't be surprised if your employer is less generous than it should be: Some 20 percent of employers are out of compliance with FMLA, estimates the Families and Work Institute, a nonpartisan research organization. This may mean they don't offer leave at all or that they deny employees' legitimate requests for leave time. Some may not even be aware of the law. It's essential that you act as your own advocate.

Once you know your options, crunch the numbers and think about what's financially realistic. Make a decision as a family and be confident about it, says Parents advisor Kyle Pruett, M.D., a child psychiatrist and an expert on family relationships. Go ahead and ask for the max and don't feel bad about it. It's your right and you should exercise it. "Say, ?You're going to get good work out of me -- you always have and you always will," says Dr. Pruett. Doing this will help make it the norm for every mom and dad at your workplace. By standing up for what you want now, it'll be easier down the road when you're asking for flexibility to take your child to the pediatrician and go to teacher conferences.

If funds are really tight or the benefits at your job are skimpy, get creative. Would you be willing to return to work a bit earlier if you could telecommute? Is phasing back to work slowly important to you? Could you take your baby to work or job-share?

Ask for exactly what you want -- and the earlier the better, says Richard Law, cofounder and CEO of Allyis Inc., a technology consulting firm in Kirkland, Washington. "Articulate how it will be beneficial, or at least manageable, to the company, and give as much notice as possible," says Law, noting that extra lead time gives everyone a chance to prepare. "If you can't afford unpaid leave, be ready with a counterproposal." That could mean working from home or modifying your hours. List recent accomplishments and present a plan for how your tasks will be completed while you're out. What will you do before you go? What can a colleague take over? What can wait until you return? Would you be willing to do a trial run? Spell it all out.

Before and after your own leave, support coworkers who take time off. Keep them in the loop about workplace happenings, share your own experiences, and even cover some of their tasks. Julie Janus, a case manager for a foster-care agency in Middleton, Wisconsin, did this when a coworker had a baby. Janus took over five of her coworker's cases, which was difficult on top of her own workload. But she says this ultimately boosted her skills. "The experience helped me build empathy and understanding," says Janus, who now has a 15-month-old daughter of her own.

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