How Does Maternity Leave Work? Understand Your Rights and Protections

The answers around parental leave, including employee protections and rights, aren't always simple, but we can help clear up some of the confusion that may arise when planning to take some time away from work after your baby's birth.

Understanding Workplace Rights - Before and After Maternity Leave

Whether you’re preparing to take some time away from work after the birth of your baby or you’re getting ready to return to work, the laws, protections, and rights around parental leave can bring up a lot of questions. Unfortunately, the answers aren’t always simple – For example, there isn’t yet a nationwide standard or law that can be applied consistently to every employee in the U.S. when it comes to maternity leave. This means you’ll have to do a little extra digging to figure out what you’re entitled to and what options best fit your unique family situation.

It’s totally normal to have questions and, if you’re a first-time parent, you may simply be wondering “how does maternity leave work?” or “how much time will I have with my newborn?”

Here are a few details that may help clear things up:

How Does Maternity Leave Work? What to Know Before Taking Leave

First and foremost, be sure to read through your employee or Human Resources policy handbook to learn what parental leave benefits your employer provides. This may include options at the federal, state, and local levels; short-term disability; and maybe even an employer-paid leave benefit. If your employer provides a paid leave benefit, make sure you’re clear on any conditions that may be involved – such as length and/or type of employment – and reach out to your Human Resources department with any questions. Consider the following:

  • Short-Term Disability: Find out if your company offers a short-term disability benefit that you can use for maternity leave. If they do offer a short-term disability plan, check to see if you can receive a portion of your pay if you are unable to work due to pregnancy or postpartum healing (rather than an illness or injury, which are also common reasons why employees may take short-term disability leave).
  • Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA): You’ll also want to review how FMLA benefits eligible employees – and how you can take unpaid, job-protected leave for specified family and medical reasons, including your baby’s birth. In most cases, you can take FMLA if you meet the following criteria:
    • You have been employed at your job for at least 12 months and worked at least 1,250 hours in the 12 months leading up to your anticipated leave date.
    • You work for a covered employer with at least 50 employees within 75 miles.

      Eligible employees may take up to 12 weeks of leave in a 12-month period, but keep in mind that FMLA leave is not paid leave. This means that you won’t be entitled to receive any paychecks during the time you are out of work and on leave. Though this option can provide additional time with your baby on top of whatever paid leave your employer may provide, you may wish to first check if this is financially feasible. With that in mind, these are the three basic rights of parental leave under FMLA:
    • The right to return to the same or equivalent job.
    • The right to not be discriminated against because leave was taken or that you were pregnant.
    • The right to return to an altered schedule or intermittent or part-time work.

According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), anyone returning from maternity leave must be treated the same as other workers who are allowed leave for a temporary disability. Additionally, an employee must be allowed to work as long as they can perform their job duties before taking leave. This means that your employer cannot force you to stop working earlier than you wish. For more information on FMLA, check out the detailed fact sheets from the U.S. Department of Labor!

  • Employer-Provided Paid Leave: As more working parents are demanding sustainable work-life balances, organizations are realizing that paid parental leave – covering both new moms and dads! – is an essential benefit for creating a supportive company culture that values their working parent employees. This is great news, because the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that employers are catching on and about 25% of U.S. workers at businesses with 500 or more employees now have access to paid family leave that includes both maternity and paternity leave*.

    If your baby has already arrived, then you’re probably well-versed in exactly what your employer offers. However, you may also wish to check if your state has passed any laws regarding maternity or parental leave. Laws are different within every state, but may provide additional benefit options to you.

How Does Maternity Leave Work? What to Know After Taking Leave

As you’re preparing to return to work, be sure to review your organization’s breast milk feeding and pumping policies. The Break Time for Nursing Mothers law (under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act, or FLSA) requires break time and a private (non-restroom) lactation space for non-exempt (hourly) breastfeeding employees.

Many states have additional lactation accommodation laws, so take time to familiarize yourself with your own state laws too. If you are an exempt (salaried) employee, your state and even some local laws may still support your right to pump at the workplace. You’ll also want to find out if your company offers any other breast milk feeding resources, such as multi-user breast pumps, refrigerators to store pumped milk, access to lactation specialists to assist with any challenges, or breast milk shipping if you anticipate traveling overnight for work.

The topic of parental leave can be somewhat complicated at times – though there is no easy answer to questions like how does maternity leave work, benefits can sometimes change quickly in accordance with federal, state, and/or local laws. Happily, many employers offer paid parental leave and other working parent benefits above and beyond the minimum requirements; it’s often just a matter of confirming what exactly you’re eligible for and how to receive that benefit, so reach out to your H.R. department! Many parents take a combination of benefits – including paid employer-provided leave, short-term disability, and/or FMLA – so understanding all the options, what they mean, and what works best for you and your growing family is important. The last thing you’ll want to do is feel stressed when it’s time to snuggle, nurse, and bond with your newborn, so take some time to understand the workplace rights you are entitled to as a parent. You’ve got this!

*Paid Family Leave in the United States, Congressional Research Service, May 2019

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