Everything You Need to Know About Maternity Leave in the U.S.

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NEW MOM explores the brilliant, terrible, wonderful, confusing realities of first-time motherhood. It’s for anybody who wants to be a new mom, is a new mom, was a new mom, or wants really good reasons to never be a new mom.

Below, the Cut’s Ask a Boss columnist Alison Green tackles your questions about maternity leave in the U.S.: How long is maternity leave? What do maternity-leave laws require your employer to offer? Find those answers and more ahead, including when to take maternity leave, what to know about insurance, and how to prepare for returning to work.

How can you ask about benefits when you’re interviewing for a job, without implying you’re going to get pregnant soon?

In an ideal world, you’d be able to ask about maternity leave in interviews. In practice, there’s a very real chance that employers will read that as a signal that you plan to get pregnant soon and be less inclined to hire you, even if only unconsciously. (To be clear, that would be illegal. It’s against the law for employers to discriminate against a woman because she’s pregnant or they fear she’ll become pregnant. But it still happens, and it’s worth guarding against.)

Instead, the better time to ask is once you have a job offer. At that point, the employer can’t rescind the offer without making it obvious they’re breaking the law. Once you have an offer (but before you’ve accepted it), you can say something like this: “I don’t have immediate plans to get pregnant, but I’d like to stay with you for a long time, so I’m hoping you can tell me a bit about your parental leave policies.”

If it turns out the employer offers no maternity leave beyond what federal law requires (more on that in a minute) — or if the employer is small enough that federal law won’t cover you — you can try negotiating for leave as part of your offer. Try saying something like, “In order to build a career with you long-term, I’d want to make sure that a fair maternity leave plan is in place. Would you be willing to include [insert details of what you want] as part of the offer?”

Do you get paid for maternity leave? What should you know about paid maternity leave by state?

Unfortunately, the only federal law guaranteeing maternity leave in the U.S. is unpaid — and it only applies to some employees.

The law that most women rely on is the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which will protect your job for up to 12 weeks after childbirth or adoption. The law doesn’t require that you be paid for that time off; it just requires that your job be waiting for you when you return and says that you can’t be penalized for taking the time off.

FMLA doesn’t cover everyone, but you’re eligible if you’ve been working in your job for a year and your employer has more than 50 employees within 75 miles of where you work. (Note that if your spouse works for your company too, your company only needs to offer a total of 12 weeks off split between the two of you.)

If you’re thinking this isn’t a very good deal at all, you’re correct. But some states do have their own laws that extend the amount of unpaid leave employers must offer you, and several states* — including California, New Jersey, New York, and Rhode Island — offer partially paid leave as well. So be sure to check your individual state laws to know exactly what you’re eligible for.

How does maternity leave work if it’s unpaid?

Despite the crappy federal laws on maternity leave, some employers do offer paid leave of their own volition, so check your company’s policies.

But typically people try to save up their vacation and sick time, and then use it to cover all or part of the time they’re on leave. For example, if you’ve accrued three weeks of sick time and three weeks of vacation time, you could use those six weeks as part of your maternity leave, ensuring you’d be paid for that portion of it.

Can you use short-term disability insurance for maternity leave?

Short-term disability insurance may provide a portion of your salary (usually 50–100 percent) for a specific number of weeks after you give birth. So if you’re considering getting pregnant and don’t already have short-term disability coverage, either through work or on your own, this might be a good time to look into it.

How long is the average maternity leave?

Because FMLA lasts for 12 weeks, many women return to work after those 12 weeks are up.

If you’re thinking you’d like to use your accrued vacation or sick time to extend your leave — tacking it on after the 12 weeks from FMLA — you may or may not be able to do that. FMLA only protects you for 12 weeks total, and it’s very common for employers to require that you use any accrued vacation or sick days as part of those 12 weeks (as opposed to adding it on afterward). So check with your employer to see what its policies are.

That said, some employers have parental leave policies that allow you to take off more time. Even if yours doesn’t, you may be able to negotiate additional time with your manager or HR, since your company may agree to offer you more time in order to ensure they get you back at the end of it.

What about paternity leave for dads?

Under FMLA, men are also eligible for 12 weeks of unpaid leave to care for a child. Some employers may offer additional paternity leave as well.

When do people normally take maternity leave?

It depends! Some people will begin their leave a week or two before their expected due date because it’s becoming physically uncomfortable to work or because they want more time to prepare for the baby. Other people wait right up until their due date, in order to save as much time off as possible for after the baby has arrived. It’s up to you.

How will your office handle questions about your work while you’re on maternity leave?

The key to having an undisturbed leave is to prepare your office beforehand and put a detailed plan in place for who will handle what in your absence. Make sure that you’ve left behind plenty of documentation for your keys tasks and, if you have decision-making authority in any areas, make sure you’ve delegated that to others.

In many jobs, it’s reasonable to say that you’ll be completely unavailable while you’re on maternity leave. In others, you might feel more comfortable if you know someone will contact you in an emergency. It’s up to you how to structure your leave; either of those options is okay. But you definitely shouldn’t be on call for questions on a regular basis; that’s not a normal expectation when someone is on maternity leave. (Plus, if you’re taking your leave under FMLA, the law actually says your employer can’t ask or require you to perform work on your leave, although fielding occasional calls as a “professional courtesy” is allowed.)

If you decide you’re willing to have occasional contact, ensure that it’s on a schedule you control, so that you’re not getting work calls when you’ve just laid down for the first sleep you’ve had in 24 hours. For example, you could request that people direct any requests for you to your personal email or say that you’ll check your work email once a week. It’s also smart to say that any requests for you should all go through one central gatekeeper, so that you can train that person ahead of time to assess whether something really rises to a level worth bothering you for.

What should you know about going back to work after maternity leave?

Things may be different when you return — projects will have progressed or even wrapped up, there may be new projects or people around, and things will have happened that you’re not caught up on. That’s normal; don’t be thrown off by it. You don’t need to get caught up on everything in a day, and in fact, there’s no way to do that and you’ll feel less harried if you don’t try. But if you can, try scheduling lunch with your boss on your first day back, so that she can fill you in on anything major you need to know, and you can get aligned on what your top priorities should be. Don’t be shy about doing your own prioritization, too. It’s okay to say to people, “I need a couple of days to get caught up before I can have a substantive conversation with you about X” or “I’ve got to focus on Y this first week, but I can talk with you about X next week instead.”

Also, if you can, make your first day back a Wednesday or Thursday, so that you’re easing back in, rather than working a full 40 hours that first week.

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Order Alison Green’s book, Ask a Manager: Clueless Colleagues, Lunch-Stealing Bosses, and the Rest of Your Life at Work, here. Got a question for her? Email askaboss@nymag.com. Her advice column appears here every Tuesday.

*This post has been updated to mention states that offer partially paid leave.

Everything You Should Know About Maternity Leave in the U.S.