Know Your Rights!

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Many women dread telling their boss about their pregnancy. Sometimes, it goes very well, other times not so much. A lot of women who work outside of the home aren't eligible for a whole lot of perks. The benefits you can expect are dictated by federal law, state law, and the company you work for/what kind of work you do. Let's start with the federal laws first. There are two pieces of federal legislation on the books related to pregnancy in the workplace:

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The Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978

It's illegal to pass you over for a promotion, to fire you, or otherwise discriminate against you solely on the basis of your pregnancy.

Keep in mind, however, that this law does not apply to companies with fewer than 15 employees, nor does it apply to employees who become unable to do the job they were hired to do.

It's that last bit that gets interesting. Imagine for a moment that you broke your foot or were recovering from a major illness. Some companies might offer to lighten your workload until you healed- by putting you on desk duty, for example, if you're a police officer or by giving you a temporary administrative position if you're usually required to work on your feet. According to the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA), your employer must treat you as it would treat any employee with a temporary medical disability; in other words, if your employer makes accommodations for someone with a non-pregnancy -related medical condition but fails to make them for you, you've got a claim. In fact, a case just like that -Young v. United Parcel Service- made it all the way to the Supreme Court in 2015, after UPS prevented a pregnant woman from working because she could no longer lift the 70 pounds required of drivers. (The pregnant woman won her case-woot!) Actors have repeatedly fought for their rights under this law, too. In the mid 1990s, for example, a popular soap star was fired from her job on Melrose Place when producers argued that she couldn't convincingly portray a "vixen" while pregnant. The actress sued, in part because the show had accommodated a different actress during her pregnancy, and was awarded nearly $5 million in emotional distress and lost wages. The PDA doesn't grant you any maternity leave or paid benefits, but at least you know you've got some level of job security.

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The Family And Medical Leave Act of 1993

This second law- the only one regarding maternity leave in the United States- gives you the right to 12 weeks of unpaid time off, provided you've worked at your current job for at least one year and logged at least 1,250 hours during that year

(meanwhile, the company you work for must employ at least 50 people within a 75 mile radius).Papas, same-sex partners, and adoptive parents are eligible for FMLA leave, too; however, if you and your partner work for the same company, you'll have to split the 12 weeks between the two of you. Barring an unforeseen medical complication, you must give 30 days notice before taking your leave. 

Of course, the FMLA does you no good if you can't afford to go without a paycheck. Sad to say, you can be denied benefits if you're among the highest paid 10%of employees and your employer can demonstrate that your absence would cause the company serious financial harm. If you cannot return to work after 12 weeks, or if you tell your employer that you don't plan on coming back, you can lose your benefits and your job.

So, yeah. There's really no two ways about it: the federal laws governing maternity leave just aren't all that great. There is hope that the FMLA will be expanded soon. One proposed bill, for example, the Family and Medical Leave Insurance Act of FAMILY Act, would offer 12 weeks of paid leave, funded by contributions from workers and employers, not unlike Social Security. Until then, you may catch a break depending on the state in which you live.

State and Local Laws

Maternity leave laws vary widely from coast to coast. Nearly half of all states expand on the FMLA by allowing for longer (unpaid) absences from your job, or by extending coverage to employees working for smaller companies- i.e. those with fewer than 50 workers. Some states offer a version of paid maternity leave in the form of short-term disability insurance, which you can claim in the same way you'd seek, say, unemployment benefits. As of this writing, only 4 states provide true paid leave for qualified workers: California, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and New York (starting in 2018). To learn more about maternity leave laws in your state, contact your local Department of Labor or check out the nonprofit A Better Balance (abetterbalance.org)

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Get Familiar With Company Policy

Now that you know what you're legally entitled to, it's time to pull out the company handbook and find out everything you can about your employer's maternity leave policy. As the issue of paid family leave becomes increasingly politicized, some companies have begun taking huge steps in the right direction all on their own. Netflix, for example, made national news in 2015 when it announced that salaried workers could take up to 12 months of maternity or paternity leave- at full pay- following the birth or adoption of a child (YAY!) Other companies are following suit: Apple offers egg freezing for mamas who aren't quite ready to board the baby train. Facebook shells out a $4,000 bonus it calls "baby cash" and offers breastfeeding rooms in its California headquarters. If you happen to work for a company with such family-friendly policies, however, you're one of the lucky few; only 12% of US workers have access to paid leave through private employers. Some companies may require you to use up your paid vacation days, sick days and personal days before your unpaid FMLA benefits kick in. On the other hand, even if the state you live in doesn't provide short term disability insurance, some private companies and unions do. It's important to understand company policy before you break the news. Once you've done your research, look over your finances and determine how many weeks you can afford to stay home.

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You'll want to balance that number, whatever it is, with a plan that makes the most sense for you. Some mamas, for example choose to start their maternity leave a week or so before their due date; others prefer to work right up until their water breaks in order to maximize the amount of time they'll have with the baby.  Know, too, that you may be able to use part of your FMLA leave during your pregnancy if, say, hyperemesis gravidarum has you in its grip or if you're put on modified bed rest. Finally, spend some time thinking about how your workload might be handled while you're gone; your supervisor will likely have some questions, and being proactive can go a long way toward alleviating his or her concerns. Just remember: you're not asking for permission to take maternity leave; you're claiming a benefit to which you are entitled. YOu've earned it. Good luck, Mama!