Maternity Leave Laws in the US

Maternity Leave Laws
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It is important for expectant mothers to review federal and state laws related to maternity leave as well as work/life benefits offered by their employer.  Read on to learn more about the laws that protect pregnant women in the workplace.

Federal and State Laws

The first step in planning your maternity leave is to understand your rights and benefits. You’ll need to pull out your employee handbook to see whether your employer gives you any paid leave for childbirth. But at a minimum, expectant mothers are protected by several federal laws in the U.S.

It’s illegal to discriminate against pregnant women, whether in hiring or an existing employment situation. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen.   In the U.S., federal and state laws attempt to provide basic protections to pregnant women and their babies.

Here’s a rundown of two important laws that apply to leave taken after having a baby or adopting a child:

Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) – information from the United States Department of Labor

The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) provides eligible employees up to 12 workweeks of unpaid leave a year, and requires group health benefits to be maintained during the leave as if employees continued to work instead of taking leave. Employees are also entitled to return to their same or an equivalent job at the end of their FMLA leave.

The FMLA applies to all:

  • public agencies, including local, State, and Federal employers, and local education agencies (schools); and
  • private sector employers who employ 50 or more employees for at least 20 workweeks in the current or preceding calendar year – including joint employers and successors of covered employers.

In order to be eligible to take leave under the FMLA, an employee must:

  • work for a covered employer;
  • have worked 1,250 hours during the 12 months prior to the start of leave; (special hours of service rules apply to airline flight crew members)
  • work at a location where the employer has 50 or more employees within 75 miles; and
  • have worked for the employer for 12 months. The 12 months of employment are not required to be consecutive in order for the employee to qualify for FMLA leave. In general, only employment within seven years is counted unless the break in service is (1) due to an employee’s fulfillment of military obligations, or (2) governed by a collective bargaining agreement or other written agreement.

The FMLA only requires unpaid leave. However, the law permits an employee to elect, or the employer to require the employee, to use accrued paid vacation leave, paid sick or family leave for some or all of the FMLA leave period. An employee must follow the employer’s normal leave rules in order to substitute paid leave. When paid leave is used for an FMLA-covered reason, the leave is FMLA-protected.

A covered employer must grant an eligible employee up to a total of 12 workweeks of unpaid, job-protected leave in a 12 month period for one or more of the following reasons:

  • for the birth of a son or daughter, and to bond with the newborn child;
  • for the placement with the employee of a child for adoption or foster care, and to bond with that child;
  • to care for an immediate family member (spouse, child, or parent – but not a parent “in-law”) with a serious health condition;
  • to take medical leave when the employee is unable to work because of a serious health condition; or
  • for qualifying exigencies arising out of the fact that the employee’s spouse, son, daughter, or parent is on covered active duty or call to covered active duty status as a member of the National Guard, Reserves, or Regular Armed Forces.

The FMLA also allows eligible employees to take up to 26 workweeks of unpaid, job-protected leave in a “single 12-month period” to care for a covered service member with a serious injury or illness.

Pregnancy Discrimination Act – information from the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission

The Pregnancy Discrimination Act amended Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Discrimination on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions constitutes unlawful sex discrimination under Title VII, which covers employers with 15 or more employees, including state and local governments. Title VII also applies to employment agencies and to labor organizations, as well as to the federal government. Women who are pregnant or affected by pregnancy-related conditions must be treated in the same manner as other applicants or employees with similar abilities or limitations.  Title VII’s pregnancy-related protections include:

Hiring

  • An employer cannot refuse to hire a pregnant woman because of her pregnancy, because of a pregnancy-related condition, or because of the prejudices of co-workers, clients, or customers.

Pregnancy and Maternity Leave

  • An employer may not single out pregnancy-related conditions for special procedures to determine an employee’s ability to work. However, if an employer requires its employees to submit a doctor’s statement concerning their inability to work before granting leave or paying sick benefits, the employer may require employees affected by pregnancy-related conditions to submit such statements.
  • If an employee is temporarily unable to perform her job because of her pregnancy, the employer must treat the same as any other temporarily disabled employee. For example, if the employer allows temporarily disabled employees to modify tasks, perform alternative assignments, or take disability leave or leave without pay, the employer also must allow an employee who is temporarily disabled because of pregnancy to do the same.
  • Pregnant employees must be permitted to work as long as they are able to perform their jobs. If an employee has been absent from work as a result of a pregnancy-related condition and recovers, her employer may not require her to remain on leave until the baby’s birth. An employer also may not have a rule that prohibits an employee from returning to work for a predetermined length of time after childbirth.
  • Employers must hold open a job for a pregnancy-related absence the same length of time jobs are held open for employees on sick or disability leave.

Health Insurance

  • Any health insurance provided by an employer must cover expenses for pregnancy-related conditions on the same basis as costs for other medical conditions. An employer need not provide health insurance for expenses arising from abortion, except where the life of the mother is endangered.
  • Pregnancy-related expenses should be reimbursed exactly as those incurred for other medical conditions, whether payment is on a fixed basis or a percentage of reasonable-and-customary-charge basis.
  • The amounts payable by the insurance provider can be limited only to the same extent as amounts payable for other conditions. No additional, increased, or larger deductible can be imposed.
  • Employers must provide the same level of health benefits for spouses of male employees as they do for spouses of female employees.

Fringe Benefits

  • Pregnancy-related benefits cannot be limited to married employees. In an all-female workforce or job classification, benefits must be provided for pregnancy-related conditions if benefits are provided for other medical conditions.
  • If an employer provides any benefits to workers on leave, the employer must provide the same benefits for those on leave for pregnancy-related conditions.
  • Employees on leave because of pregnancy-related conditions must be treated the same as other temporarily disabled employees for accrual and crediting of seniority, vacation calculation, pay increases, and temporary disability benefits.
  • It is also unlawful to retaliate against an individual for opposing employment practices that discriminate based on pregnancy or for filing a discrimination charge, testifying, or participating in any way in an investigation, proceeding, or litigation under Title VII.

State Laws

Also check your state’s employment commission for more information related to additional benefits and protections within your state.

Your Employer’s Policies and Work/Life Benefits

Although companies with over 50 employees will be obligated to follow federal laws, many will go above and beyond in their work/life benefits that are offered to parents-to-be.

Be sure to review your company’s employee benefits manual or website and check to see how sick leave, disability leave, vacation time and other paid and non-paid time off can be utilized to cover your maternity leave.  You will want to consider that you will need time off for doctor’s appointments leading up to your official maternity leave start date.  Those doctor’s appointments may be covered under FMLA so there may be benefit to filing your request for FMLA earlier in the process.

Do remember that the FMLA countdown will begin as soon as you start to utilize the benefit for time off so that will reduce the time made available under FMLA on the back end.  It will be good for you to understand how your maternity leave will run concurrent with any sick time or disability leave you are eligible to receive.

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