As a new mom, the indescribable high of meeting the new “love of your life” can often be matched by the stress of having to leave that new love far too soon — especially if you are living in the U.S., which ranks 183rd in the world for its maternity leave policies. Yes, the only countries with lousier stats than the U.S. are Papua New Guinea and Suriname. With so many more exciting things to think about during pregnancy, it can be easy to procrastinate on figuring out your maternity leave, or perhaps not look into it as carefully as you should. However, knowing what questions to ask can end up making a big difference in your time off, and your transition back. Alex Berke and Rosa Aliberti, from the labor and employment firm Berke-Weiss Law PLLC — and founders of The Pregnancy Project — share 8 important questions that can influence the time and quality of your maternity leave.
- What type of leave are you eligible for? Different leave options will be available to you depending on where you live and/or work, and the size of your employer. You may need to mix and match them to determine how much total leave you can take. It is useful to think of your leave in buckets: medical, parental, and flexible… Always check if your employer has specific rules about how these types of leave can be combined:
- Medical leave: Medical leave is provided to deal with the medical effects of pregnancy. The Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) is a federal law that applies to people who have worked for at least a year at an organization with 50 or more employees within 75 miles, and have worked a minimum of 1,250 hours during the year prior to the start of the FMLA leave. FMLA provides up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for both medical reasons and parental leave (as discussed below). Don’t assume you qualify for FMLA — it’s a good idea to check with Human Resources (“HR”) first. NOTE: Your state may have a disability insurance program, which provides some pay during a period following the birth of your child (generally 6 weeks after delivery for a vaginal birth, and 8 weeks after delivery for a C-section). While disability insurance does not guarantee leave, it can allow you to have some of your leave paid vs. unpaid. Your employer also may require you to use your vacation time or other paid time off will you are out on unpaid leave, for which you will receive your usual pay.
- Parental leave: Parental leave is provided to spend time with your child. Currently, only 4 states — California, New Jersey, Rhode Island and New York (starting January 2018) — offer a legal right to paid family leave (though it typically ends up being a percentage of your current pay, and not the entire amount). If you are eligible for FMLA, either parent may receive unpaid parental leave. Your employer may also provide parental leave (paid or unpaid). If you live in a state without paid leave, the only paid leave you may be entitled to any paid leave your employer provides or paid flexible leave (described below).
- Flexible leave: This is what we call the leave that is given to all employees, such as your vacation and personal days, or other leave your employer provides. It’s important for you to know how much flexible leave you have; plus, if your pregnancy straddles two years (calendar or fiscal), how many days will carry over.
- Will your benefits accrue while you are out? Vacation or personal days generally accrue over the course of your company’s fiscal year. Be sure to ask whether your leave time will accrue while you’re out on leave. Sick days may accrue or may be provided up front, so ask your employer about these as well.
- Who is paying your health care premiums while you are on leave? Your employer cannot end your health insurance while you are on leave, but they do not have to pay your premiums. If you contribute to your premiums now, you may have to actively pay that portion to your employer if you are on leave without pay. You need to know this information in advance to budget for this expense and understand the process of paying the premiums so you don’t lose your health insurance when you need it most.
- What forms do you need to submit in advance of leave? Depending on what you are eligible for, you will need to submit forms for FMLA and your state’s disability insurance. Your medical provider may need to complete forms on your behalf before going on leave, and your employer may be entitled to request additional documentation from you. Gather your necessary documents, and retain copies of everything you hand in. Remember that the information your medical provider submits may affect your entitlement to, or length of, leave.
- Who is the point person you can ask questions to while you are out? No matter how much you prepare, questions will arise while you are out on leave. Make sure you know who you should communicate with if you have a question or issue, such as needing extended leave for medical reasons or dealing with health insurance questions.
- Are you expected to be available by email or phone while you’re on leave? Be clear about how and when you expect to be reachable, if at all, while you’re out on leave. If you will be doing more than de minimus work (for example, answering an email here and there) when you’re on leave, you may be able to negotiate extended leave to account for the time you worked. Communicating with your employer before leaving is key here!
- How do you sign your child up for health insurance? If you choose to put your newborn on your health insurance, make sure you know the time frame for doing so, what the insurer will need from you, and when any necessary forms need to be submitted. Your HR representative or your health insurer should be able to answer this question.
- Will you be coming back to the same job? There is no explicit requirement that you be allowed to return to your exact same job. Though FMLA is a “job-protected leave,” it entitles you to return to the same, or “equivalent” position. This could mean the same salary and title, but not necessarily the same role, clients, or colleagues. If your job does change during your leave, consulting an attorney may be useful, but changes are not inherently illegal.
Berke-Weiss Law PLLC started The Pregnancy Project as a resource for pregnant women due to how difficult it can be to find independent resources to understand your rights in the workplace. Whether you are pregnant now, or plan to be in the coming years, The Pregnancy Project can inform and empower you to negotiate more effectively with your employer and your health insurance company, relieving stress and enabling you to focus on your growing family. This blog post is considered attorney advertising.