You’re a hard-working and ambitious professional, advancing in your career every day. But you also value family and desire to have one of your own one day. You can’t help but wonder how starting a family will impact your career. Will you lose your job if you become pregnant? Is maternity leave even an option?
You’re not alone. According to Bright Horizons, over three in five (65%) women without children worry what having a child will mean for their career. Many women are concerned about taking maternity leave and wonder how taking this leave will impact their job.
I wanted to help women approach the issue of maternity leave in the best way possible. Here are 10 steps to help you navigate your maternity leave journey.
#1: Learn Your Company’s Maternity Leave Policy
Before you do anything, learn your company’s maternity leave policy. Find out what they offer. Does your company offer unpaid maternity leave? Or is there a paid maternity leave option? You can often find this information within your company’s Employee Benefits Handbook or you can contact your company’s HR department and speak to someone directly.
Only 17% of working women have access to paid maternity leave.
If you work for a company with over 50 employees, you most likely have access to 12 weeks of unpaid maternity leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). But if you are part of the lucky group of people who have access to paid maternity leave, know that this is rare because only 17% of women have access to this benefit.
Related: How to Create a Pro-Mom Workplace
#2: Know Your Rights
Knowing your rights as a pregnant employee is not only essential for making a strong case for maternity leave, but it will also help if things begin to seem fishy in the office.
Family And Medical Leave Act (FMLA)
Under FMLA, companies with at least 50 employees are required by federal law to provide employees with a total of 12 weeks unpaid leave and job-protection. But you only have access to this leave if you fulfill the following requirements.
- Worked for your employer for 12 months
- Worked at least 1,250 hours during these 12 months
- Given your employer 30 days’ notice before your proposed leave begins.
While this is great for many companies, most part-time workers do not qualify for this leave, and most small companies (<50 employees) are not legally required to offer any maternity leave. If you do NOT qualify for this leave, you may want to speak with HR or a manager to learn about the different options that are available to you. Some companies will allow pregnant employees to take sick days or disability leave to make up for their leave.
Federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act
Another law to be aware of is the Federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act. As a pregnant worker under the Federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act, you are protected from office discrimination of various forms.
Employers cannot take action against a pregnant employee solely based on her being pregnant and must accommodate the employee in circumstances of breastfeeding and pumping. Additionally, employers must reasonably accommodate employees who are unable to work in hazardous work environments that require lifting heavy objects and/or other actions that would put the employee and her child at risk.
If you feel that you are being discriminated against in any way, make sure to document everything and file a complaint with HR. You can find out more about pregnancy discrimination later in the article.
#3: Create a maternity leave plan.
Once you know your company’s policy regarding maternity leave and your rights as a pregnant employee, start planning out what your leave will look like. Create a document that outlines your maternity leave plans from now until you come back to work. This may take some time, but providing your employer with a coherent document that outlines your schedule will be incredibly helpful for both you and your employer.
In addition to outlining your maternity leave, write down what your employer should expect from you during your leave. Whether you are planning to answer emails or not do any work at all, the decision is up to you! Just make sure your employer knows your plan as well. You can find a maternity leave outline template here.
#4: Be open and honest with your boss.
Once you’ve outlined your intended maternity leave plan, schedule a meeting with your boss to discuss your plans. Remember to bring printed copies of your outlined schedule for those attending the meeting. Studies have shown that people are more attentive and will remember more if visuals are included.
Additionally, it is always better to over-communicate, especially in this situation. Let your employer know what you are expecting out of your maternity leave. Be confident in your request but open to suggestions.
During the meeting, your boss may have questions about your plans. Make sure to clearly answer any questions asked and be open to your employers suggestions for change. Your boss will most likely want to discuss your plans and create an outline that benefits both you and the company.
#5. Delegate responsibilities and let your clients know.
Plan who will temporarily take over your work responsibilities while you are on maternity leave and meet with them to discuss your day-to-day tasks. If you have clients that you are responsible for, remember to inform them of when you will be going on leave and introduce them to the person who will be taking care of them while you are away.
#6. Auto-reply will be your best friend.
If you’ve ever used email, you have probably received an auto-reply message. Although these emails can be annoying, they provide clients and others who reach out to you a way to contact someone else. These emails also give your clients an idea of when you will be returning to the office. Most email servers provide an auto-reply option under “Settings.”
#7. Work hard, but know your limits.
It is easy to want to work extra hard before your maternity leave, but make sure you don’t over-do it. As mentioned previously, the Federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act protects you from office discrimination. This means that if you feel that work obligations are diminishing your health, your employer has the obligation to reasonably accommodate you.
If you feel that work obligations are diminishing your health, your employer has the obligation to reasonably accommodate you.
So, if you are concerned for your health due to your work environment, go to your doctor and see what they say. If they recommend you take it easy, have them write up a “doctor’s note” for you to bring to work.
#8. Complete all necessary forms.
Many companies require an employee who is taking maternity leave to fill out forms that document their leave. Whether these are HR maternity leave forms, FMLA forms, or Disability forms, make sure that they are all completed and processed by the time you go on your leave.
#9. Discuss your return plans.
Many companies offer their employees part-time options when they are returning from work and many moms are finding this benefit extremely helpful. Another perk that many companies offer for returning moms is a flextime option. Flextime allows employees to decide their work hours and sometimes work remotely. Thus, make sure to discuss the options that are available to you with your employer.
#10. Document your maternity leave journey.
Throughout this whole process, make sure to document EVERYTHING. If you’ve ever worked in an office, you understand that stuff happens and that things get lost. Try to make sure that this DOESN’T happen. The last thing you need after giving birth is a phone call from HR stating that they don’t have documentation of your leave.
In addition to having documentation of valuable forms, you will also want to carefully document any ways in which you are mistreated during this time. Although we hope you are never met with such treatment, we know that pregnancy discrimination happens often. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, 31,000 pregnancy discrimination charges were filed between 2011 and 2015.
Practicing attorney Tom Spiggle suggests that pregnant employees document everything that may seem “fishy.” Pregnancy discrimination can come in many forms, so it is important to document it all. Here are some of the most common ways pregnant women are discriminated against in the workplace:
- Reduced wages
- Termination of employment
- Employer makes employment decisions based on a stereotype of the capabilities of pregnant women
- Refusal to promote an otherwise qualified pregnant woman based on a belief that she will not return to work
- Failure to provide basic accommodations for breastfeeding mothers at work
- Forcing pregnant workers to take a leave from work even if they’re still able to work their job
- Unwillingness to provide accommodations for workers with pregnancy-related impairments, such as gestational diabetes or pre-eclampsia
- Changes in employer behavior that shows a bias due to your pregnancy
- Refusal to provide light duty to a pregnant worker just because it would be more expensive or less convenient to do so
If you have experienced any discrimination of this nature, make sure to have adequate documentation and file a complaint with management or with human resources. If legal reparations are necessary, you may want to file a lawsuit with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. You can find out more about filing a lawsuit based on pregnancy discrimination here.
Why Maternity Leave Matters
Studies have shown that taking maternity leave has multiple important benefits. Additionally, knowing the importance of maternity leave is key in making the case for its implementation. The benefits of taking maternity leave include:
- Lowers the rate of postpartum depression
- Less likely to suffer from depression 30 years down the road
- Enhances a child’s short-term and long-term development
- Lower infant mortality rate
- Taking maternity leave shows other women that they can do the same
- It keeps women in the workforce
While we cannot 100-percent guarantee that your maternity leave journey will be perfect in every way, we do believe that this guide will help throughout the process. As always, make sure to do your own research and if you have any additional steps that you would add to your own “How to Negotiate and Plan Your Maternity Leave” list, please feel free to share!
Riley Akre is the Assistant Producer at Voices for the Voiceless, the movement to create a world where every person is valued and no one faces unplanned pregnancy alone. If you have any questions, you can reach Riley at firstname.lastname@example.org.
What the story of Elizabeth Watts mean for protecting pregnant healthcare workers during the pandemic.
5 ways you can empower single moms and pregnant women during the pandemic
Veronika Didusenko is known around the globe as a model and advocate for women’s rights. She is also the 22-year-old mother of a five-year-old son. Her mantra is bold but simple: “Having children is not a verdict.”