During my first year of teaching, one of my friends in the English department had a baby halfway through the school year. In chatting with her about how she and her husband (a teacher in another district) planned to pay for parental leave to welcome their baby home, I was shocked to discover that neither school district paid for maternity leave. Instead, both my friend and her husband had to use their accrued sick and personal days to cobble together a few months of paid leave.
My shock came from a misunderstanding of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). I thought it provided for parents to take time off with their new arrivals (or take care of ailing family members). In reality, all FMLA guarantees is that your job (or an equivalent) will be waiting for you at the end of your leave.
According to a 2011 census report, only 50% of first-time mothers receive paid leave — and that figure includes people like my friend, who had to use her sick days.
If you’re expecting a child and rely on your paycheck (and who doesn’t?), a lack of paid maternity leave can turn your joyous event into a financial headache.
What You Need to Know About Maternity Leave
Understanding the FMLA
This important legislation allows both men and women to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to care for a new baby, a newly adopted child, or handle other health-related family crises. At the end of the 12 weeks, your employer must allow you to return to your job or a similar one with the same salary, benefits, working conditions, and seniority.
There are several holes in FMLA’s coverage, however, and only about 60% of American workers qualify. To be eligible, you must work for a company with more than 50 employees, and you must have been employed for at least 12 months and worked a minimum of 1,250 hours prior to taking your leave.
FMLA does allow you to take your 12 weeks any time during pregnancy (or adoption proceedings) or the year after the baby’s arrival. This means you could take your 12 weeks all at once, take the time in chunks, or reduce your daily or weekly schedule.
But even if you do qualify for FMLA, it isn’t paid. If your employer doesn’t offer paid leave, here are a few options:
Short-Term Disability Insurance
Some employers who offer paid maternity leave make use of short-term disability insurance to do so. Even if your employer doesn’t offer this, it’s possible to purchase your own short-term disability policy to cover your maternity leave. (You must purchase this policy before you get pregnant, as your pregnancy will otherwise be considered a pre-existing condition.)
Short-term disability will generally pay about 2/3 of your salary for a maximum of 6-8 weeks. Having such a policy in place can also help if you happen to have any complications during your pregnancy or postpartum. It’s important to note, however, that you’ll generally owe taxes on your short-term disability payments, which won’t be taken out of your checks.
Negotiate with Your Employer
Many women are nervous to talk to their employer about their maternity leave needs, but it can really pay off. Pat Katepoo, author of “Max Your Maternity Leave,” says it’s imperative to negotiate for the paid time you need with your baby.
Offer to take on more projects or responsibility before the baby comes, and ask that the extra hours be applied to maternity leave pay. Or, Katepoo suggests simply asking for some paid time off. If you’re a valued employee, your employer will work to keep you happy.
Cut Your Costs
If you know there’s no way to receive paid time off after your baby’s birth, then it’s time to start looking at your budget. How much money will you need to replace while you’re on leave? What parts of your budget can you cut?
Once you’ve asked these hard questions, start automating transfers from your checking account to a maternity leave savings account. That way, you’ll pay yourself first without having to think about it.
The Bottom Line
New parents in America have an unenviable task when it comes to paying for the time off they need to welcome a new baby. Planning ahead and being willing to negotiate and cut costs can all help make your baby’s arrival blissful — rather than financially stressful.
What would you do/what have you done if your company didn’t offer paid maternity leave?