About Maternity Leave: Returning to the Workforce

{Click here to read the original article on Real Simple.}

Having a baby soon? Learn how to maximize your benefits when taking time off from work.

Whether you’re thinking about having a baby or simply curious about the distant future – what’s the deal with maternity leave? Federal law requires your employer to give you at least 12 weeks off, but it only mandates unpaid leave. The most common reason new mothers return to work sooner than they’d like to is because they can’t afford to go without their salaries any longer.

Here’s what you need to know.

Family Leave Isn’t Just for Pregnant Women
The Family & Medical Leave Act requires most employers to give employees up to 12 weeks off for “family leave.” You don’t have to be pregnant to qualify, either; this applies to both mothers and fathers, and can be used for those who are adopting or must care for a sick relative.

You Don’t Have to Take Your Leave All at Once
You can take intermittent leave in which you leave for a while, return, and then take more leave. You can even work part-time until you’ve taken the equivalent of 12 weeks off.

Some Employers Don’t Have to Give Leave
Your employer doesn’t have to give you family leave if you’ve worked at the company for under a year, or if you’ve worked fewer than 1,250 hours during that year (that is, fewer than an average 25 hours per week, assuming two weeks’; vacation). A company is also exempt if it has fewer than 50 employees. And if you and your partner work for the same company, it’s only obliged to give the two of you a combined 12 weeks off, not 12 weeks off each.

You Must Request Family Leave in Writing
At least, in order to get your unpaid leave under federal law, you need to request it in writing at least 30 days in advance. We suggest you discuss your options with your company’s human resources department much earlier than that, such as at the end of your first trimester. Your employer must notify you within two days of the request if you are ineligible under the federal law.

One Solution to Unpaid Leave Is Short-Term Disability Insurance
This sort of insurance is relatively common: New Jersey and California provide short-term disability insurance to residents, usually funded through a payroll deduction, and a few others – including New York, Rhode Island, and Hawaii – mandate that employers offer this insurance. Short-term disability insurance can provide a portion of your salary if you are temporarily unable to work due to a medical condition, including pregnancy. Private disability insurance may cover between half and all of your salary.

Disability Insurance for Maternity May Cover Only Six Weeks, or Less
Though federal law guarantees you 12 weeks of unpaid leave, disability insurance may only cover six weeks, or even less. Also note that some employers require that you use up any vacation or sick days (during which you would collect your full salary) before disability insurance kicks in. If you’re not yet pregnant but considering a baby, now is a good time to make sure that you have short-term disability insurance and to find out the details.

Employers Must Maintain Your Insurance – But You May Have to Pay
The law requires your employer to continue your health insurance coverage during this time, but you may be required to pay for it out of pocket; after all, when you’re on unpaid leave, you’re no longer earning a paycheck from which insurance premiums can be deducted.

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