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What is maternity leave?
Maternity leave, now often called parental or family leave, is the time a mother (or father) takes off from work for the birth or adoption of a child. Actual paid "maternity leave" — while the norm in almost all countries — is unusual in the United States, although some enlightened companies do offer new parents paid time off, up to six weeks in some cases.
Most likely, you'll use a combination of short-term disability (STD), sick leave, vacation, personal days, and unpaid family leave during your time away from work.
The picture did improve in 1993 with the passage of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which entitles most workers to up to 12 weeks of job-protected medical leave for birth or adoption. However, the FMLA doesn't cover those who work for smaller companies and guarantees only unpaid leaves.
Which benefits are available to you will depend very much on which state you live in. In 2002, California led the way in enacting paid family leave, and other states such as Washington and New Jersey followed suit. And not all states allow women to take short-term disability leave to cover pregnancy, birth, and postpartum recovery.
Your employer may have policies that dictate the order in which you can take different kinds of leave. In any case, you'll want to start looking into your options as early as you can during your pregnancy and make sure you have all your paperwork sorted out before the baby arrives.
How does short-term disability work?
Short-term disability is meant to cover your salary — or a portion of it — during the time that you're unable to do your job due to illness, injury, or childbirth. Many large employers and unions offer it, as do several states. (It's generally provided automatically to all employees or residents, not as an optional benefit you have to sign up for.)
If your state provides STD, you may pay a small amount out of each paycheck to cover your share. If your employer or union provides it, the cost may be covered for you. If none of them provides STD, or if the coverage is insufficient, you can purchase your own policy or additional coverage through an insurance provider for a monthly premium.
Private STD insurance through your employer or a provider will generally pay between 50 and 100 percent of your salary for a certain number of weeks, depending on how many years you've worked for the company. (The maximum amount you can receive is usually capped.)
Six weeks is the standard amount of time covered for pregnancy. Some plans allow more time if you've had complications or a cesarean delivery, and many also cover bedrest before birth.
State STD benefits typically cover half to two-thirds of your salary, and the coverage for pregnancy usually lasts four to six weeks but can last up to 12 weeks. In California, for example, you're covered at 55 percent of your usual salary up to a maximum of $1,075 per week for up to four weeks before your due date and up to six weeks after delivery. You may be able to get extended coverage after the birth if you've had a c-section or medical complications, but your doctor must certify this.
If both your state and your company offer STD, you may be required to use the full state benefit and have your employer's coverage make up the rest. You'll still end up with the same amount of pay as if you were getting your employer's full benefit, but you'll get it in two checks, one from the state and one from your company's provider.
Many programs require that you be out of work for up to a week before you can start to collect disability benefits. Your employer or your state's program may require you to use up your accrued sick days or vacation days before your disability benefits kick in. That's not necessarily a bad thing, as those days are paid at your full salary.
Will I have to pay income tax on disability income?
It depends on who's paying the insurance premiums for your coverage. The portion of your salary that you receive from your employer's coverage is taxable, but no income taxes will be taken out of your checks, so you'll end up owing the money in April. (On the other hand, you'll be able to take an extra deduction for having a new dependent, so that may offset the amount.)
Money you receive from a state disability program is generally not subject to federal or state income taxes. If you pay for the disability insurance yourself, the benefits you receive are also tax-free.
What do I do when my short-term disability coverage runs out?
Some new moms decide to return to work once their coverage runs out, which is typically after about six weeks. (Of course, some have to return even sooner if they're relying on a state benefit that only pays half of their normal salary and they can't afford to make up the difference.)
If you've accrued vacation, personal, or sick days, you may want to use them to extend your leave. Some companies will even allow you to take vacation or sick days that you haven't yet accrued. In some cases, however, you may be asked to reimburse the company for those days if you decide not to return to work after your leave.
You may also be eligible for unpaid leave when your disability runs out. If you choose not to return to work when your STD coverage ends, some states allow you to take a certain amount of time off as unpaid pregnancy leave. (California has a particularly generous provision, allowing up to 12 weeks for new parents — not just women.)
You won't get paid during this time, but your employer will be required to hold your job for you until you're able to return (or until the leave runs out). Your employer may require that you use up your sick days before taking unpaid leave.
How can I find out whether I'm entitled to unpaid leave?
Start by asking your company's human resources department. Under the FMLA, many employers are required by federal law to allow their employees (both men and women) 12 weeks of unpaid leave after the birth or adoption of a child. At the end of your leave, your employer must allow you to return to your job or a similar job with the same salary, benefits, working conditions, and seniority.
About 60 percent of U.S. workers are eligible for FMLA. You're eligible if you meet both of the following conditions:
- You work for the federal government, a state or local government, or any company that has 50 or more employees working within 75 miles of your workplace.
- You've worked for your employer for at least 12 months and for at least 1,250 hours during the previous year (an average of 25 hours per week for 50 weeks).
There are a few exceptions: Your employer isn't required to keep your job open for you if you're in the highest-paid 10 percent of wage earners at your company and your employer can show that your absence would cause substantial economic harm to the organization.
Another exception is if you and your partner work for the same company. In this case, you're only entitled to a combined 12 weeks of parental leave between the two of you.
Even if you're not eligible under the FMLA, you may still be eligible for leave under your state's provisions, which are usually more generous than the FMLA, or under your company's family leave policy.
Your employer may require that all the paid leave you take (STD, vacation, sick leave) count toward the 12 weeks required by the FMLA. But some states allow you to take the full 12 weeks in addition to whatever paid leave you take. Individual employers may also allow this.
You can use your unpaid leave in any way you want during your pregnancy or during the year after your child is born. That means you can take it all at once — right after the birth or placement of your child, for example — or, as long as your employer agrees, you can spread it out over your child's first year by taking it in chunks or by reducing your normal weekly or daily work schedule.
If you're considering unpaid leave, think about how much time you can reasonably afford to take. Also think about whether your partner can take any time off and when it would be best for him or her to do that.
You and your partner may decide to take leave at the same time, but if you want to stretch out the time that at least one of you is home with the baby, consider overlapping your leaves, taking them consecutively, or spreading your time off over the year.
What happens to my benefits while I'm out on leave?
According to the FMLA, your company must continue to keep you on its health insurance plan while you're on leave, whether it's disability or family leave. Most typically, a company will pay your premiums but ask to be reimbursed for your share (the amount that's usually taken out of your paycheck). If your company is particularly generous, it may cover your share and not ask you to pay it back.
If you tell your company that you don't plan to return to work following your leave or if your job is eliminated while you're gone, your employer may stop paying your premiums and put you on COBRA, a program in which you continue to be covered under the same plan but you must pay the entire premium yourself.
Should you leave your job, your employer may require you to pay back the money spent to maintain your health insurance while you were on leave. That's unless the reason you're not returning to work is that you've developed a serious medical condition or some other circumstance beyond your control (say, your spouse is transferred to a job in another city and you have to move).
The FMLA doesn't require employers to allow you to accrue benefits or time toward seniority when you're out on leave. That means the clock may stop on things like vacation accrual and the amount of time you can say you've been with the company in order to qualify for things like raises based on seniority, additional vacation days, participation in your company's 401k plan or vesting of your company's matching investment, or vesting of stock options.
Finally, you won't be able to contribute to your 401(k) or flexible spending account while you're on leave because you're not receiving a paycheck from your employer and thus can't contribute pre-tax dollars.
What if I'm adopting a child or taking in a foster child?
You're not qualified for disability leave in this case, but you are allowed 12 weeks of unpaid leave under the FMLA — or possibly more under your state's provisions or your company's policy.
Generally this leave begins once the child arrives at your home or when you leave to go get the child if you're adopting from another country. You may also be eligible to take time off during the adoption process to meet with lawyers or attend home visits. You can take paid vacation time as well, and some states and employers even allow you to use your sick leave.
How and when should I request leave?
Federal guidelines require you to request leave at least 30 days before you plan to take it, but it may be best to give your boss more advance notice — you probably don't want to wait until you're obviously showing to tell your employer about your pregnancy. But you may want to wait until after your first trimester, when your risk of miscarriage goes down significantly.
After that, think about breaking the news as soon as you've thought through your leave request and your post-pregnancy work schedule. You'll be in a stronger position to negotiate a leave if you approach your boss with a specific plan and allow her plenty of time to help you implement it. (If you have trusted co-workers who have been through this before, ask them how they handled their leave and what kind of reaction they got.)
How do I decide when to start my leave?
There's no "right time" to stop working. A lot will depend on your energy level, how easy or complicated your pregnancy becomes after the initial exhausting months, and the stress and physical labor involved in your job. Your financial situation will also be a factor, as the sooner you start your leave, the sooner it will run out after your baby's born.
Some women start their leave when they're seven or eight months pregnant, while others work right up until delivery. You'll need to monitor your pregnancy to determine the right time to start maternity leave. If your doctor puts you on bedrest or complications develop that require you to be out of work before you give birth, you'll most likely be put on short-term disability if your state or company offers it.
Under the FMLA, you can start taking unpaid leave anytime during your pregnancy — or anytime thereafter — as long as you conclude your leave within 12 months after your child's arrival. Check with your human resources department to find out if any limitations apply under your company's leave policies.
What if my employer denies my request for unpaid leave?
If you're sure you qualify under the FMLA or your state's provisions, make sure you've given the required notice and you have a plan to get your responsibilities covered while you're gone. Then, gently let your employer know more about these laws. Contact the U.S. Department of Labor for an FMLA fact sheet and advice on how to get your employer to comply.
But start by being reasonable. You don't want to alienate your boss by making demands unless you have to.
If reason doesn't work and you believe you're entitled to leave, contact your regional office of the Labor Department's Wage and Hour Division to file a complaint. A phone call from the Labor Department to your employer can resolve most problems.
If the problem is not resolved, the Labor Department will investigate your complaint and may sue your employer on your behalf. If you don't get immediate results, consider hiring a lawyer who is familiar with employees' rights to help you.
You may also want to get in touch with Equal Rights Advocates, a national nonprofit organization that advocates for women's rights in the workplace. Call ERA's confidential, toll-free hotline at (800) 839-4372 for advice on issues related to maternity leave and pregnancy discrimination.
Where can I get more information?
To find out what kind of disability or unemployment insurance and other family leave provisions are currently available or coming soon to your state, check with your state's Department of Labor. You can also search the Internet for your state's disability insurance policies.
For a directory of companies that offer private short-term disability coverage for individuals, contact America's Health Insurance Plans.
For more information on the FMLA and family leave policies, contact:
U.S. Department of Labor
Wage and Hour Division
200 Constitution Avenue NW
Washington, D.C. 20210
Phone: (866) 487-9243
National Partnership for Women & Families
1875 Connecticut Avenue NW, Suite 650
Washington, D.C. 20009
Phone: (202) 986-2600
Fax: (202) 986-2539
Email: [email protected]
Families and Work Institute
267 Fifth Avenue, 2nd Floor
New York, NY 10016
Telephone: (212) 465-2044
Fax: (212) 465-8637
Email: [email protected]