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Planning maternity leave: Q and A

Maternity leave is time away from work while you’re pregnant, or after you give birth. In the U.S., it isn't always guaranteed. Whether you have the option to take maternity leave tends to depend on your job, as well as local and state regulations in your area.

When you're on maternity leave, your job cannot legally replace or penalize you for taking time off. Maternity leave is also sometimes paid.

How much time off can I get?

In the United States, most companies - but not all - are required by state law to allow 12 weeks of unpaid leave under federal law. You can read about this law (called the Family Medical Leave Act) at this link. It's also a good idea to check with employer and your own state laws to get a better picture of how this applies to you.

Some companies allow employees to add on accumulated vacation time or sick days to extend the time they're out on leave. Others may allow you to spend vacation time you haven’t accumulated yet. Because it can vary so much, you will definitely want to consult your company about their specific policy.

When should I take my leave?

Before you can take your leave, you typically need to submit a request or discuss your plans for leave with a human resources representative several weeks in advance. You should consult your employer to learn more about the right timeline for submitting such a request or making plans for leave. 

There are some notable details that might shape when exactly you decide to take your leave, including how much leave time you have, how you're feeling toward the end of your pregnancy, and you and your baby's health needs. Some women prefer and are able to start their leave a little while before their due date. Other women prefer or need to work right up until rather close to their due date or delivery. You know the details of your leave and your needs best, and so you should take leave when is the best for you, considering all of these details. 

Can I get paid?

In the U.S., some companies offer paid maternity leave, but it's certainly not a guarantee, so consult your employer to see if they offer any pay during maternity leave. Three U.S. states (California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island) guarantee through state law paid family and medical leave. Four U.S. states (New York, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and Hawaii) offer paid short-term disability leave, which women can use during pregnancy and after they give birth.

If you are in the U.S., you can read about the different state laws here.

If you do get paid, you may receive a smaller portion of your salary than if you were there, or a decreasing amount of your salary as an incentive to return to work. Some companies pay a salary through a limited amount of maternity leave.

Is there an alternative to maternity leave?

If maternity leave isn't an option, you may also be able to use a combination of paid vacation, unpaid vacation, and sick days. Another way to get time off from work is through short-term disability. Short-term disability may be offered through your state or employer, so it's worth doing some research on local regulations and your employer's policies to see if you qualify.

Short-term disability usually pays between 50 and 100% of your salary, and it will generally cover only 3 to 6 weeks depending on your state.

Getting ready for maternity leave

Before your maternity leave, a few things to remember to make it an easier process:

  • Talk to HR: Consult your human resources department to figure out all the options you have. Some departments may be more hesitant to offer money or time off, so be sure to do research and ask a lot of questions to get what you are entitled to. Ask about your options early so you have plenty of time to come up with a plan.
  • Coordinate with your partner: Plan together to maximize the time you two can take care of Baby. Some companies even offer leave specifically for men to stay home with their newborns. Maybe you’ll want to take time off together, or maybe your partner could take time off later and take care of Baby when your leave ends and you return to work.
  • Take finances into consideration: Figure out how much time off without pay you could afford. It may be that you or your partner will need to return to work sooner than you would like, but on the other hand, you may find that you can stretch your leave longer than you thought you might.

Make a plan with your employer and employees to make sure that your work gets done while you’re away, but also be prepared to advocate for yourself.

Don't wait until the last minute, either! Organizing everything early can help you comfortably take time off without worrying about work once you're home and worrying about Baby instead.

Reviewed by Dr. Jamie Lo
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