Maternity leave is one of those topics you leave on the back burner until it is time to deal with it; after all, if you’re not pregnant, or planning on becoming pregnant soon, why worry about any benefits or returning to your former position after the birth of your baby, right?

Did you know the United States is one of only three countries left in the world that fails to guarantee paid maternity leave?  The others are Papua, New Guinea and Oman.

The FMLA and its impact on women

Today’s working women should feel grateful for the Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”), because, since its inception in 1993, they are now able to take twelve weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave associated with the birth of a baby, or caring for an adopted child.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that only 12% of Americans have access to paid parental leave, which is considered a benefit by employers, and only 5% of low-wage earners receive paid maternity leave.  Often, any paid parental leave policies are at the behest of the individual employers.

Because it might be on the minds of both soon-to-be moms and their husbands/partners, and, also, since it is one of the top legal questions asked, below is a helpful primer about maternity leave, so you can be aware of your options and just concentrate on the impending happy event.

The Family and Medical Leave Act does not just benefit new moms.  As you know, the FMLA is a federal law that guarantees certain employees up to twelve workweeks of unpaid leave each year with no threat of job loss.  Additionally, the FMLA requires that employers maintain the health benefits for eligible workers, just as if they were working on site.  That’s wonderful, except the FMLA has certain criteria, as delineated below, so, unless your place of employment, or even you, meet the criteria, you may have to resort to short-term disability leave or some other paid leave of absence, that is, if your employer is so inclined to grant it.

In order for FMLA leave to work for you, the following criteria must be met:

  • Your company must have fifty or more employees within 75 miles of the workplace; and
  • You personally must have worked for your employer for at least 1,250 hours in the twelve-month period before the start of your FMLA leave (that would be computed as follows – at least 24 hours in each of the 52 weeks of the year, or 40 hours per week for at least seven of the last twelve months).

If your company or you do not meet the criteria set forth in the paragraph above, your company is considered exempt from the FMLA, thus, you, just like an estimated 40 percent of the U.S. workforce, are not entitled to its benefits.

If employers offer paid leave for childbirth, it is a win-win situation.  Doctors recommend new moms stay off the job for at least twelve weeks to recover physically and allow for bonding with the baby.  Not only does this benefit the mom and baby, but it behooves the employer to permit the time off, because it results in a more loyal employee.

As a result of the FMLA, the federal government guarantees you that allotment of time, but, please ensure you fully understand the leave policy at your workplace, long before it is time to depart on that extended leave.

Mechanics of maternity leave

Maternity leave should be a time to recover from this life-changing event and to bond with your little one.  It is a period of time that should be free of the stress of money worries and whether or not your job will be waiting for you when you return.  Again, remember that the FMLA is great in that it allows the new mom time to recover and bond with her new baby, but, you must remember that it is an UNPAID leave.  A handful of states have paid leave and more states may follow suit, but it is not a policy clear across this nation.  Some big-name employers like Netflix, Adobe and Amazon have generous family leave programs, but they are the exception, and sadly, those states and companies’ great benefits are of little consolation to you if you’re not living or working in one of them.

Other options:

Short-Term Disability (“STD”)

Some company insurance policies do qualify motherhood as a “disability” although it is not technically true.  Although motherhood is not normally considered a disability, short-term disability insurance generally pays between 50% to 100% of your salary for a certain number of weeks after you give birth.

To see if you can qualify for STD benefits for your pregnancy/birth of your child, you should consult with your H.R. director, or perhaps those benefits are delineated in the company employee handbook in the medical benefits section.  Typically, once STD benefits kick in, you will paid a percentage of your salary for six weeks with a normal birth, and more if you had a C-section or complications during delivery.  In some instances where you are restricted to bed rest during the last trimester of the pregnancy, short-term disability benefits may be apply in this instance as well.

Vacation and personal time

To compensate for your salary lost during your time off on maternity leave, you could also consult with your H.R. department to ascertain if personal, vacation or sick time may be applied to extend your time off even further.  If your employer is amenable, and not collecting a regular paycheck is not problematic, you may be permitted to take an unpaid leave of absence or disability leave.  If that is not acceptable to your employer, or, if you have the ability to work from home and remote into your workplace computer, that amenity may just provide the recovery and bonding time needed to get you work-ready once again, and with a paycheck coming in as well. See what the best employment lawyers say about Maternity Leave Work.