For moms-to-be, a medical-leave primer

If you are a mother-to-be, you know the many preparations you need to make for your child’s arrival. The nursery, the car seat, the bottles. However, there is one more preparation many women need to make, and that is to secure your employment situation while you take time off to take care of, and bond with, your child.

While our country has, unfortunately, not made it to the level of other first-world countries that support maternity leave with pay, new mothers in the U.S. do have some rights under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA). Many Maine companies also offer more generous maternity benefits that include pay or extended leave, but here is some information on the FMLA so you at least know the very minimum you should expect.

Specifically, if you work at a company with at least 50 employees (or, for Maine law, at least 15 employees), you have the right to take up to 12 unpaid weeks off (for Maine state law, 10 weeks) to care for your child. After that, you are guaranteed to be able to come back to work at your current job or an equivalent position with equal pay, benefits and working conditions. In addition, you are entitled to continue to be covered under your health benefits during your leave.

This leave can be taken by pregnant women, mothers (and fathers) of newborn babies, parents who have just adopted a child or have just begun taking care of a foster child, as well as employees whose family members have serious health conditions or who have serious health conditions of their own.

In order to be eligible under FMLA, you can be part-time or a full-time employee, but cannot be considered an independent contractor. You also have to have worked at that company for at least 12 months (although that time does not have to be consecutive) for at least 1,250 hours during the 12-month period before your leave is taken.

If you meet these requirements, you will need to give your company 30 days notice, which you can do by filling out a form from your manager or human resources department.

When you consider taking leave under FMLA, you may be interested to know that you don’t have to take all 12 weeks together. This could be useful for you if you need to take some time off due to pregnancy complications. You could take a few weeks off during your pregnancy, return to work, and then take the remainder of your time off after your baby is born.

Also, if you are an adoptive parent, you can take your leave when your child is placed with you – not necessarily when the adoption is finalized – which can sometimes take months or years. Again, if you need to take time before your child is placed with you, to participate in a home study or for other legal needs, you can do so and then take the rest when your child has been placed with you.

If your partner also fits the above requirements, he or she can also take up to 12 weeks of leave under the FMLA. If you are in the position to be able to do this, you may want to switch back and forth with your partner taking weeks at a time. You can do this – the only requirement is that you take your non-medically necessary part of leave within a year of the birth or placement of your adoptive child.

Some mothers also use their FMLA leave to create a flexible work arrangement at the end of leave so they can gradually come back to work. This is also allowed and may make your return to work less jarring.

One last point to note is that if your employer offers paid medical leave, it should be available to pregnant women, as well. Under the Pregnancy Disability Act, if men receive paid leave from an employer for being out due to an illness such as a heart attack or cancer, or they are allowed leave that is longer than 12 weeks, pregnant women should receive the same benefits.

These are your rights according to the FMLA. If you feel you have been discriminated against or discharged due to your taking leave, you have two years to file a civil law suit – but let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.

There are a lot of unknowns as you enter the world of parenthood. At least now, you can enter that world a little more secure thanks to knowing the facts about the Family Medical Leave Act.

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