Maternity Leave: How Does It Work?


Whether you’re thinking about having a baby or simply curious for 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:

1. 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.

2. 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.

3. 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.

4. 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.

5. 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.

6. 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 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.

7. 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.

8. Know When And How To Add Baby To Your Coverage

You’ll typically have to do this within 30 days of birth in order to cover the new set of medical bills. These may arrive addressed to your child shortly after his or her birth.

9. Do You Have A Financial Maternity Leave Plan?

Unless you’re very lucky, taking maternity leave will mean losing at least half your salary for at least several weeks. So, while you’re still in the planning stages, get your finances in shape by setting aside a portion of your pay to use during your leave.

Take our quiz to gain a sense of whether you’re financially ready for a baby.

Ideally, we’d like to you to be able to take as much time as you want for family leave, up to the federally-mandated 12 weeks, without running out of money for the things you and your baby need. If you plan ahead, you should be just fine!

Minda is vice president of the American Society of Journalists and Authors and co-author of The Geek Gap.

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  • Betsy

    From the US Department of Labor Wage & Hour Division's Fact Sheet #28: The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993:

    “Under some circumstances, employees may take FMLA leave intermittently – taking leave in separate blocks of time for a single qualifying reason – or on a reduced leave schedule – reducing the employee’s usual weekly or daily work schedule…If FMLA leave is for birth and care, or placement for adoption or foster care, use of intermittent leave is subject to the employer's approval.”

  • Laura

    I'd love to see you address what happens if you are a government or university employee, postdoc or student, as I've heard many stories over the years from postdocs and graduate students that suggest these institutions find ways around following the rules.