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Everything New Mothers Need to Know About Maternity Leave

So, you just had a baby. Your life will never be the same. You likely spent a few days in the hospital, visited by friends and family. Everyone is overcome with joy and wonder. Once you return home, you have so many things to think about. Feedings, tummy time, the baby’s bassinet, and diapers. One thing you don’t want to worry about is the income you’ll make while home with your new addition. As a new mother, you’re offered some form of maternity leave from most jobs. But is it paid leave? How long will you receive it? And what necessary steps are needed prior to the birth of your child? This article will help you to prepare for maternity leave and understand exactly how it works.

Let’s start by going over the basics.

What is Maternity Leave?

Maternity leave offers new mothers a portion of their salary during their weeks out of work. Leave coverage can range in length of time from 10 to 12 weeks, depending on the company, the coverage, and the type of birth.

Maternity leave isn’t always offered by your company. In fact, many mothers rely on the Federal Medical Leave Act to compensate their wages. If your company does offer maternity leave, which you’ll want to ask early in your pregnancy or even before conceiving, it may not be a paid leave. This is an important question you need to ask. If the leave is paid, the compensation is usually much less than your normal salary.

It’s interesting to note that there are also leaves known as family leave, parental leave, and paternity leave. These types apply to adoptive mothers, fathers, and even domestic partners.

How Does it Work?

So now that you know what maternity leave is, let’s discuss exactly how it works.

If your company offers a paid maternity leave, the money generally comes from a combination of sick time and disability. Short-term disability is something commonly offered by companies as part of your coverage policy. This coverage pays part of your salary for a certain number of weeks due to medical leave. Your maternity leave would fall under this category. Many large companies automatically include this benefit in your coverage plan. If your company does not offer short-term disability, you can purchase this type of coverage directly through your insurance provider. It’s important to ask about what percentage of your income will be paid and for how long. If you work for a non-profit organization, make sure you discuss maternity leave upon conception. Some non-profit organizations do not offer benefits or any type of medical leave coverage.

You can also use your accrued sick and vacation time to cover portions of your leave. Some companies actually prefer that you use these avenues for coverage first, before utilizing your disability pay. Check with your employer and human resources department.

What Are My Rights?

Because the U.S. federal government doesn’t guarantee any type of maternity leave benefits, you need to do your homework and find out what your rights are. This will help you make informed decisions and fight for what you deserve.

The option most women in this situation use is the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). This act helps protect your job for up to 12 weeks following the birth of your child. This means that your employer cannot replace you or eliminate your position in your absence or penalize your pay. But not everyone is eligible for FMLA and even if you are, paid leave is not guaranteed. Some of the stipulations of this act include:

  • Working at a company that has more than 50 employees 
  • Working at your company for at least 1,250 hours during the prior year 
  • Living within 75 miles of your workplace 

These are just some of the stipulations surrounding FMLA. Coverage varies by state. There are currently 25 states in the U.S. that offer extensions on your leave including an extended length of time from 12 to 16 weeks, a lower employee requirement (below 50) and even the requirement that private employers pay for a certain portion of your maternity leave. For most states, maternity leave means unpaid time off.

There are currently four states with disability laws that require a company to take out a short-term disability policy that will cover your wages during your absence. These states are New York, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and Hawaii.

Understanding Short Term Disability Coverage

Let’s say you don’t qualify for FMLA or your company offers only unpaid maternity leave. This means you’re allowed the time home with your baby, but how will you compensate your lost wages? As mentioned before, there are a few ways around this. Most commonly, you’ll be asked to use any accrued sick or vacation time from your company. If you choose not to do this, or the time you’ve collected doesn’t offer enough financial stability, this is where the short-term disability police comes in. You can apply for this through your personal insurance company. Your company might also offer this option. The classification between “maternity leave” and “disability” is simply that - a technicality. Maternity leave is considered a type of medical disability.  

The amount you receive through disability will vary based on your policy and coverage. Some policies cover 100% of a woman’s pay, which is covered through premiums paid by your employer. Some policies will only cover part of your leave and require you or your company to pay for this coverage before you actually become pregnant. If you’re planning to have children or are actively trying to get pregnant, now might be the time to research the types of short term disability you’re eligible for and the stipulations that surround them. Many policies require a physical examination before receiving payments.

The length of coverage also varies. Most short-term policies will offer paid leave for 6 weeks postpartum. Others offer extended pay based on pregnancy and birthing complications, such as a cesarean section. Women often receive between 50-100% of their pay during this time. If you’re company does not offer 100% compensation, there are ways around this. You can supplement your employer’s insurance premium payouts. The most important factor to remember about short-term disability is that it often needs to be established and paid into before you actually come pregnant.

Do Your Research in Advance

The most important piece of advice when discussing maternity leave is to plan ahead of time. It’s important that you discuss maternity leave with your current employer and fully understand their policies and procedures surrounding paid time off. Often times, you’ll receive the time off without fear of losing your job, but it will not be paid time. In order to secure a reliable income during your leave, find out what short-term disability coverage both your company and your personal insurance company offer. Because these types of policies often need to be in place and paid for prior to use, you’ll want to start researching them sooner rather than later.

You want to enjoy your baby and the joys of motherhood during your postpartum weeks. You don’t want to be riddled with stress and anxiety over how you’ll make ends meet. By researching your options ahead of time and gathering the necessary information, you’ll be prepared and knowledgeable about your maternity leave rights and options.

April Sutphen

I am a 32-year-old mother and wife of a police officer living in NJ. I have my MFA in creative nonfiction and 10 years writing experience. When I'm not writing I enjoy hot yoga, cardio kickboxing, running, and camping.

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