BY BONNIE MANNING JUL 2016
What you should know about maternity leave: a step-by-step guide on how to prepare for your new family.
From the moment conception is discovered, preparations begin. You decorate the nursery, enroll in childbirth classes, and of course read your employee handbook. What? Read the employee handbook? Yes. In preparation for motherhood, a woman in the work force needs to take steps to prepare herself and her employer for maternity leave. While childproofing your home and making it safe for a new addition to the family, take the steps needed to childproof your career and secure your professional future.
Before You Tell the Boss
Dr. Sarah Beth Estes, Assistant Sociology Professor and affiliate of Kunz Center for the Study of Work and Family at UC, says it can help to be “strategic” when preparing for maternity leave. The reality of women in the workplace is a fairly new concept and accommodating an expectant mother can seem daunting to an employer. Unfortunately, this “failure of imagination” according to Dr. Estes places the burden on the expectant mother. The delicate balance between professional life and family life begins the day your employer finds out you’re pregnant. The key to making a successful transition from working woman to working mother lies in the approach. Dr. Estes says by developing a strategic plan for your return to work, you show your employer that you are committed to the company and to your career.
Your Legal Rights
The first step in creating your strategic plan is to know your legal rights. Under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), qualifying employers are required to give 12 weeks unpaid paternity/maternity leave. The twelve weeks can be taken in one chunk, or it can be used in smaller segments. You may also use the 12 weeks by working shorter workweeks or fewer hours in the day. New mom Mary Lebeau took this option and returned to work on an intermittent schedule, using the remainder of her leave to shorten her work week to Monday, Tuesday, and Friday until she used the equivalent of 12 weeks work.
The only exception to this 12-week rule is if you and your spouse work for the same company. Then the 12 weeks leave must be shared between the two of you. One person may take the whole 12 weeks, or you may split the time. The problem with this law is the fact that it only pertains to “qualifying companies.” If you work for a small company of less than 50 employees, the company does not qualify, and the FMLA does not apply to you. In that case you must rely on your company’s policy, which brings us to the next step. Know your company’s policy. Maternity leave policies vary from company to company, which makes it difficult to nail down a standard for expectant mothers. But if you know a few starting places for sifting through the company protocol, then you may find planning a strategy a little easier.
Sometimes the process is as easy as flipping to the part of the handbook titled Maternity Leave, where the policy and benefits are laid out for you. Cinergy does this for their employees on the employee website. Under the subheading of “Having a Baby,” Cinergy takes the expectant mothers through the process step-by-step with great detail. Unfortunately, not all employers are this good. Many times you will have to search through the company information to see how leave is classified and handled. You may find maternity leave benefits listed under the short-term disability policy or in your medical benefits package. If you still cannot find policy information, ask. Then put it in writing, but do so in a non-threatening way. Say something like, “So we have it on hand in the future, why don’t I just type that up for you?” This way you are doing them a favor while making sure there are no misunderstandings down the road.
Telling Your Boss
Telling your employer should involve more than an, “I’m pregnant!” shouted through the corridors of the office. Instead, set up a formal meeting with your employer. It can be as simple as saying, “When is a good time to sit down and talk to you for a few minutes?” The meeting doesn’t have to be rigid and impersonal, but it does have to address very specific issues. Make sure you have organized your specific career intentions on paper. This way, when you tell your boss that you are pregnant, he or she will be confident in your plans to return to work.
Try to see the situation through the eyes of your company and address the issues that you think may cause concern for your employer. In the world of senior management, an employer must always look at the big picture. The hard truth of the big picture is that your maternity leave takes a necessary employee who is operating at high efficiency and creates a gap. This gap is either filled by trained replacement, or it remains a gap while coworkers overextend themselves to compensate for your absence. Having an organized career plan in writing eases your boss’s anxiety about losing you during your maternity leave. Plus, it protects you by letting the company know what you expect when you return.
The FMLA requires employers to return employees who were on leave to either the exact position they had before or to one that is equivalent with comparable duties, benefits, and pay. According to Cincinnati attorney Christian Jenkins of Mezibov & Jenkins, L.L.P., this is where most employers fall short. Mr. Jenkins’ focuses his practice on civil rights issues, including employment matters. He says companies sometimes try to get around this portion of the law by “eliminating the [new mother’s] position while she is on leave and then hiring someone else to perform the same duties.”
That is exactly what happened to Gail Kent. After returning from maternity leave, Gail was told that the company had undergone reorganization. Her job as Administrative Assistant no longer existed, and the person who filled her position while she was on leave would now be filling the new position of Office Manager. The new position just so happened to have the same responsibilities as the Administrative Assistant job did prior to Gail’s leave. To prevent this from happening, you want to address these issues when you initially tell the employer you are expecting. To prepare for this, ask yourself the following questions:
•Do you plan to return to the same position that you left?
•Will you return on a part-time or full-time basis?
•When will your leave begin? Will you wait until you go into labor?
If you are still unsure about how to put your plan in writing, a great tool is the internet. A site such as www.workoptions.com offers a template with step-by-step suggestions on how write your maternity leave proposal.
While On Maternity Leave
After the baby is born, you will want to call work and tell everyone about your new little one. Contact should not stop there. One big mistake that new moms make is that they do not check in while on leave. As the saying goes, “out of sight, out of mind.” Call your supervisor once a week. Let them know that if they need any help, they can call you. Find out how they are handling your absence so you know what to expect when you return. When making these phone calls, be prepared to deal with territorial feelings. Your stomach may tighten when someone else answers your phone extension. Don’t get jealous or protective of your job. Remind yourself it is only temporary, and offer to help in any way possible. By remaining a presence in the office via phone check-ins, you remind the office that you plan to return to your position.
Returning to Work
On your final week of maternity leave, call your supervisor and talk about your return. If possible, re-enter your position on a Wednesday or Thursday. The separation of you and your child will be less heart-wrenching if you know that the weekend isn’t too far away. Plus, if any childcare issues arise, you can hopefully deal with them over a weekend instead of disrupting your first week back in the office. On your first day back, sit down with your boss and the person who was filling in for you. You need to catch up on exactly what work needs to be completed, where any projects stand, and how your supervisor expects you to proceed. Also, remember to thank the person who filled in for you too.
When Things Go Wrong
If you are meticulous about planning your leave, you will be better prepared to handle any deviations from that plan. When you have a plan in writing, there are no surprises and no misunderstandings on either part. Unfortunately, even though your intentions are put into writing, it is done so several months before your leave. Once you actually go on maternity leave, the plan becomes reality, and the reality of your leave is that workplace needs must be met in your absence. This is where the difficulty often arises. Someone else or someone new has taken over your responsibilities, and after weeks of performing these responsibilities, the company adjusts to a new working environment. This can make the return to work much more challenging for your employer than the leave itself. This challenge opens the door to potential FMLA violations, and attorney Christian Jenkins says that this “can be devastating to a family with a new addition.”
What to Do
First, start with company policy. If you feel you are not being treated according to company guidelines or in accordance with the FMLA, you should take appropriate steps to complain. The hardest thing about complaining is you may have to complain about your boss to your boss. The best way to handle this is to keep good records about what was said, when it was said, and who other than yourself witnessed the conversation. Also, it may be wise to file a formal complaint, in writing, with two people. Consult your employee handbook to find out who would be the appropriate person to file a complaint with. Many times, inappropriate behavior can be taken care of within the company without legal action. Gail Kent took appropriate action within the company when her direct supervisor wrote her up for “excessive sick leave use” when she returned from maternity leave. Gail filed a formal appeal to the write up through human resources and got the reprimand reversed. Unfortunately, when this happens, it’s hard to get working conditions back to being a friendly environment unless one of the two parties leaves the company, which is what finally happened to Gail. She left the company for a more family-friendly work environment.
U.S. Department of Labor
If your rights have been violated, you may want to consider filing a charge with the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL). Attorney Christian Jenkins says that the DOL will not only “accept and investigate such claims,” but in some cases ,the DOL will “prosecute the FMLA claim on the behalf of the individual.” Mr. Jenkins does point out, however, that it is “somewhat unusual for the DOL to actually bring an enforcement action.” It is free to file a claim with the Department of Labor, and at least there will be record of your complaint. To find out more specific information on how to file a complaint with the DOL, go to www.dol.gov, or call 1-800-827-5335.
If your rights under the FMLA have been violated, then you can file a lawsuit in federal court within two years of the last violating incident. It is not required that you have an attorney, but Mr. Jenkins says, “It is the most effective way to vindicate your rights.” Court rules and procedures are overwhelming to the layperson, and with a new addition to your family, it would be even more so. Mr. Jenkins adds that “employers covered by the FMLA will be represented by experienced attorneys and usually have trained human resources personnel whose job is to protect the company from employee lawsuits.” This makes it even more important that you obtain an experienced lawyer who will advocate your rights. The cost for filling a lawsuit and obtaining a lawyer will vary. Some lawyers charge hourly rates while others will work on a contingency basis, charging a percentage of the reward obtained on your behalf. Others fall somewhere in between, charging an agreed upon amount initially then a percentage of the reward obtained on your behalf. The best thing to do is to meet with several lawyers before your decide. Ask of your potential lawyer what experience he or she has with labor law. Do not sacrifice experience for a smaller price tag.
When preparing your life for the changes that a new child brings, don’t forget to prepare your career, too. Knowing your legal rights and your company’s policies allows you to plan for the future of your family while securing your spot on the corporate ladder.