Knowing the Ins and Outs of Maternity Leave

5 Questions to Ask Even If You're Not Pregnant Yet

by April Leiffer Henry

Financial Frequency. myCareer

October 4, 2019 .3 min read

Decorating the nursery, buying a car seat, stocking up on diapers — these are common things to budget for when expecting a baby.

But what about your financial situation after your little one arrives? Are you and your wallet prepared for maternity leave?

Sometimes called parental or family leave, maternity leave is the time a new mother takes off work to give birth and care for her newborn. Maternity leave can also be used when adopting a child.

But do you know the details of your employer’s maternity leave policy? It’s important to learn them early in your pregnancy. And, if you’re changing jobs, inquire about the company’s maternity leave policy before you get pregnant.

Here are five questions to ask your employer about maternity leave.

Is maternity leave paid or unpaid?

The United States is one of the only high-income countries in the world that does not require paid maternity leave. While a few states do have maternity leave laws and some companies offer paid maternity leave, it is not the norm.

When talking with your employer or a potential employer during the job offer process, you should ask if the company has paid maternity leave. If not, inquire about the options for taking leave.

For many parents, maternity leave ends up being both paid and unpaid. It’s common to take a combination of sick leave, vacation and personal days, short-term disability, and unpaid leave through the Family Medical Leave Act.

How long can I take off for maternity leave?

The length of maternity leave varies widely in the United States. In most cases, medical professionals suggest waiting at least six weeks to go back to work after a vaginal birth and eight weeks following a cesarean section. Returning to work depends on many factors — your physical health, mental state, emotional well-being, financial situation, the baby’s health, and childcare options.

When you discuss the length of your maternity leave with your employer, one of the best ways to approach the conversation is to ask, “What is the maximum amount of time I can be on leave and return to the same position, doing the same work?”

Take the answer to that question and compare it with how long you can afford to not work. It’s important to crunch the numbers before your baby arrives, so you can plan ahead and submit a reasonable maternity leave request to your employer.

Also, you may ask for 12 weeks off but find yourself itching to go back to work after only eight weeks. Your employer will probably welcome you back sooner as long as you have the medical clearance.

Do I need to claim short-term disability?

In the United States, it is incredibly common for the bulk of a woman’s maternity leave to be paid from short-term disability.

For most companies, short-term disability is part of the benefits package and covers your salary, or part of it, during the time you’re unable to work after giving birth. This is usually six weeks for a vaginal birth, but some plans allow more time after a C-section. Short-term disability can also begin before the baby's birth if there's a medical reason to stop working.

When talking with your employer about short-term disability, it’s important to get the specifics. Some companies or unions require an employee to have worked a certain amount of time before qualifying for short-term disability. Most importantly, find out if short-term disability covers your full salary or only a percentage, and adjust your post-baby budget accordingly.

What benefits will I have during leave?

The Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) requires most companies to continue offering health insurance to employees who are on leave. You will likely have to continue making regular contributions to your health plan. If you're not on the payroll — which is the case when on short-term disability or FMLA unpaid leave — you'll probably have to pay your share of the premium out of pocket.

Also, you won't be contributing to other benefits that take a deduction from your paycheck, like retirement or flexible spending accounts, when you're on leave.

What are my rights if maternity leave is denied?

First, it’s important to understand two federal laws, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act and the Family Medical Leave Act. As the name suggests, the first protects against discrimination because of pregnancy, childbirth, or related health conditions.

FMLA requires employers to grant employees up to 12 weeks of unpaid time off per year for parental leave. The law does not apply to most companies with less than 50 employees. Another caveat of FMLA is that to qualify, employees must work at least 12 months and 1,250 hours during the year immediately before the leave.

In addition, a handful of states have laws that affect maternity leave, so be sure to check into your state’s rules.

If you suspect your maternity leave request has been wrongfully denied, contact the National Partnership for Women and Families or the Department of Labor. These organizations can help you favorably negotiate your maternity leave.