My husband and I had our first baby this year, so this summer I did some research on maternity leave. I was surprised by what I found out, so here are the four questions I recommend to all expectant moms (or dads!):
1. Do you qualify for leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act? If not, what type of leave does your company offer?
Maternity and paternity leave is covered under the Family and Medical Leave Act, which also covers leave for things like caring for an aging parent, caring for an ill spouse, or even an employee's own illness. FMLA only applies to certain companies (those with more than 50 employees, for example) and certain employees (there are requirements for how many hours/how long you’ve worked for an employer, and your employment location). More details are available on the Department of Labor website.
One thing that I was surprised to learn was that FMLA provides for 12 weeks of unpaid leave in a given 12-month period while protecting your job for your return. Because the leave is unpaid, employers are not required to contribute to your retirement plans or to pay the premiums on your health insurance benefits.
They are required to maintain the health insurance coverage of an employee on leave, but they can charge you your share of the premiums — and they could potentially charge you for their share as well if you fail to return to work after your leave. Be sure to ask your HR person how your company handles this before you go on leave.
Even if FMLA does not apply to your company or your job, your employer may offer some sort of leave. Be sure to ask about it when you publicly announce your pregnancy.
2. Does your state or company offer additional leave?
Some states, such as California and New Jersey, require companies to offer longer maternity leave or even paid leave. Google your state name and “maternity leave” to see if there are additional protections for you.
Your company may also be more generous than FMLA requires and offer longer leave, paid leave, or to pay all your benefits. Be sure to also ask about a flexible return-to-work schedule using paid or unpaid time off.
3. Do you qualify for paid disability time?
If you have a short-term disability policy privately or through your employer, or if your state offers a paid disability program for maternity leave, be sure to take advantage of it. It seems strange to consider having a baby as a “disability,” but this is an insurance program that provides you a percentage of your salary while you are not working — which is really important when your family size just increased.
Find out what the timelines are for applying, when and how you’ll be paid, and whether you are required to use any sick time to start the disability period. For example, I have a disability policy that pays 60 percent of my salary for six weeks post-vaginal birth or eight weeks post-cesarean birth. But I have a waiting period of five days which I have to take as sick days (fully paid) before that policy kicks in. Confused? Yeah, me too. Make sure to ask your HR person, insurance rep or state benefits person for more information before you go on leave.
4. How much time can you afford to take off?
I recommend taking as much leave as you can possibly afford, paid or unpaid, but the reality is that most working moms need to get back to work at some point. Whether you’re planning a family soon or are already pregnant, take a look at your budget to see how long your family can realistically survive without your income, and with the higher expenses of a baby.
Don’t just look at it on paper — do a trial run for a few months to see how tight the belts have to get at your house. Start living your “baby budget” well before you need to and stash the extra for emergencies, a college fund, or nursery decorating expenses. And then enjoy your time off with your new bundle of joy!
If you’ve dealt with maternity or paternity leave, what advice would you add?