Dr Lesley Regan
Many women are justifiably worried that they will be perceived differently at work from the moment they announce they are pregnant, whether this is a first or a subsequent pregnancy. Some employers assume that you will be less committed to your career from this point onward and caught up in the exciting developments of your pregnancy. As a result, you may have serious concerns about your current job security and about your future career.
Although maternity rights and benefits in the US are not nearly as generous as the rest of the developed world, certain rights are protected by federal law, such as the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA). This legislation requires employers with 50 or more employees to allow up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for various family and medical reasons, including childbirth, and guarantees that you will return to the same position or one of equal seniority and salary when you return. Other legislation protects your right to working conditions that are safe both for you and your unborn child through the creation of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), and guarantee that your pregnancy must be treated as a medical condition for which you cannot be discriminated through the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA). Further legislation has been enacted in twenty states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico that extends the provisions of the FMLA by varying degrees.
If you are aiming to return to your job after the birth, work out some clear ideas about what you want to do and explain your plans to your employers or colleagues. It is entirely within your rights to say that you intend to return to work after a certain period of maternity leave and subsequently change your mind. However, try not to vacillate between the two options -- it won't inspire your employer to have long-term confidence in you.
Think through how long you would like to take off (you can always change the exact dates later on) and what you would like to happen to your job while you are away. There may be an established procedure in your workplace for maternity cover but if there is not, you can help by suggesting how best to achieve this cover. Does an additional outside individual need to be hired? Can an existing colleague switch roles for a while? Don't undersell yourself by suggesting that someone can fill in for a couple of days a week or a few hours a day while you are away. First, this begs the question of what on earth you are doing for a full five days. Second, you do not want to return after your leave to find an overflowing inbox or a catalog of things that have not been done.
If you are self-employed, the ground rules are much the same as they are for an employed woman: be clear about your future plans; tell people how long you are taking off; and inform them of any maternity cover that will be arranged.
Leaving and returning to work Q&A
- How can I maximize my employee benefits?
You should check with your employer to determine the company's maternity leave policies before you get pregnant. In some cases, you need to have worked for an employer for a set period of time before you become eligible under the Family Medical Leave and Pregnancy Discrimination Acts.
- How should I negotiate the best maternity-leave package possible?
You should discuss your maternity-leave plans with your employer approximately 12 weeks before your baby is due. Make sure that you check whether you are covered by any local laws or collective bargaining agreements that expand upon or limit the provisions of the Family Medical Leave Act.
- How can I protect my rights under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA)?
You should inform your employer in writing of your intentions at least 30 days before you go on maternity leave.
- When should I finalize the details of my maternity leave with my employer?
You should dive your employer a letter summarizing your plans and what you have agreed upon, about 10 weeks before your baby is due.
- How can I maintain good relations with my employer and hold my job until I return?
About 6-8 weeks after the birth, you should tell your employer whether you expect to return to work on the date anticipated.