Pregnancy is one of the most exciting times of your life. But if you’re a working mama-to-be, there may be one cloud hanging over your head: talking to your boss about maternity leave. You know you’re going to have to bite the bullet sooner or later, but in these economic times, no one would blame you for feeling a little uneasy. Luckily, you’ve got the law on your side.
Know your rights
According to the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), you’re entitled to up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave if your company meets three conditions. First, you must have been with your company for at least 12 months (though they don’t have to be consecutive). Second, you must have worked for a minimum of 1,250 hours over the previous 12 months. Finally, the company must employ at least 50 employees within 75 miles. Your state may offer support too. “Certain states administer their own laws affecting pregnancy and parental leave, with some offering more employee rights than federal law,” says Isabella P. Lee, JD, employment law attorney at Ford & Harrison LLP in Atlanta. “Consult the pregnancy and parental leave laws of [your] state.”
Even with guaranteed maternity leave, it’s a good idea to save up as much of your annual leave as possible. “An employer may require the employee to use any accrued and unused vacation, paid time off or sick time during the FMLA leave,” says Lee. You can find out your company’s policy by talking to the human resources department, where you’ll also be able to pick up the necessary forms for requesting leave. Be sure to formally request maternity leave within the required time frame. If you don’t give your supervisor enough time to make arrangements, your company may be within its rights to deny your request.
Meet in the middle
Discussing your leave may seem like a tricky topic, but try to understand how your company feels. It’s about to lose an employee for up to three months, and many new mothers decide not to come back. Frequently, companies will decide to hire a temporary replacement. “Generally, an employer can hire a replacement while the affected employee is on leave,” says Lee. “However, the employee is entitled to be reinstated to the same position she left when she went on leave, or to an equivalent position with equivalent duties, pay and benefits.” Discuss the possibility of a temporary replacement with your boss and learn what she expects from you during the process, such as interviewing or training potential candidates.
If the idea of training someone to replace you (even temporarily) isn’t something you’re comfortable with, see if your boss is willing to negotiate. Suggest working from home a few days a week, or coming in to the office part time. But remember to only make commitments you can keep. Don’t overextend yourself! Additionally, if your position is too important for the company not to replace you, a different set of rules applies. The company does not have to hold your job open for you “if the employee’s leave is so long that it places an unreasonable burden on the employer or if the employee is a key employee (i.e., C-level executive),” says Lee. After all, no company can run for very long without its most valuable team members. A “key employee” is generally defined as one in the top 10 percent of the company’s earners. If you think you might fall into this category, talk to your boss about your options.
With small businesses on the rise, many moms-to-be find themselves falling between the cracks of FMLA’s coverage. If you work for a company that has less than 50 employees, FMLA doesn’t apply. Seeing the problem, many states have passed laws that pick up where FMLA ends, so contact your state’s department of labor branch. If your company is too small to qualify for state leave laws as well, you’ll have to “check with your employer as to whether it voluntarily offers pregnancy leave as a matter of company policy,” suggests Lee. You might be pleasantly surprised: Companies that hope to one day have 50 employees frequently institute policies that mirror FMLA in order to make the eventual transition smooth and to increase employee loyalty.
Another potential problem for those working for smaller companies is the issue of insurance. While mamas working for larger businesses frequently qualify for about six weeks of temporary disability insurance payments due to pregnancy, smaller groups may not be able to cover the payments. Since you won’t be drawing a salary during unpaid leave, any insurance payments that typically come out of your paycheck might now have to come out of your pocket.
Additionally, family leave only applies to a pregnant woman’s husband. “The Department of Labor has issued an opinion letter that the FMLA does not recognize same-sex marriage,” says Lee. Long-term partners and fiancés, even if they are the biological fathers, don’t count either. Once again, many states have taken steps to address this, providing benefits to workers who aren’t covered, lengthening the leave, or even requiring paid leave. To find out which extensions are available in your state, check out the Women’s Bureau at dol.gov/wb.
Just beat it
Make sure you’ve given the proper notice, filled out the necessary forms, completed any tasks you’ve been working on and prepped any temporary workers who are filling in for you, and then when the time comes, don’t feel guilty about leaving. You’ve done your part, and your job now is to bond with your new baby. The office will function on its own just fine, and you’ve got a new role to focus on: being the best mom you can be.