Planning your Maternity Leave. Know your benefits. Questions to Ask.

Planning your Maternity Leave. Know your benefits. Questions to Ask.

Background photo by John Looy on Unsplash

You just found out your pregnant. You probably have a ton on your mind – is it a boy or a girl, what do I need to prepare for a baby, how/when should I announce my pregnancy, when does morning sickness go away, and so much more. If you are working, there may also be a small thought in the back of your mind regarding your maternity leave benefits.

It can be SO confusing and intimidating to navigate the world of human resources and insurance in order to find out what benefits are available to you. I know I struggled with this while I was pregnant, and it was a big stressor for me.

My goal with this post is to reduce stress for other working moms who are planning their maternity leave. That’s how it should be – less stress about leave, and more focus on baby! Here are some things to consider, including a list of questions for your HR representative.

One of the most helpful resources I found while looking into this topic was from the Birthful podcast by Adriana Lozada. She has a ton of great content out there, and I highly recommend her podcast to any pregnant woman or new mom! If you are reading this article, you may want to specifically listen listen to her podcast episode titled “Navigating HR to Plan Your Maternity Leave“, where she interviews Katy Dahl, a human resource professional in North Dakota. Many of Katy’s suggestions are also mentioned in this article.

First, consider benefits available through each level of government/policy.

  • Federal. Many employers are required to provide 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave through the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). There are exceptions to this. For instance, you may not qualify if you have not held your job for a full year, if you have worked <1250 hours during the past year (about 25 hours/week), or if you work for a small business. For more information, visit the FMLA site.
  • State. Several states have put laws into place to better support new moms/parents. Some states have loosened the FMLA requirements, thereby ensuring that more people qualify for 12 weeks of unpaid leave. Other states provide some amount of paid leave for new moms. Look into the specific laws for your state. See this DOL site for more information. The National Partnership for Women & Families made a chart with details regarding the leave laws of specific states.
  • City/Municipality. Certain cities also have laws that expand on the FMLA benefits. Some cities require employers to provide paid family/parental leave.
  • Employer. Even if not required by law, there are some employers that offer paid family leave. Or, they may offer other benefits that you can use for income during your leave, such as vacation/sick time or short-term disability insurance. This is where it is important to discuss all options with your HR department. The remainder of this post is full of suggestions on how to go about your communication with HR.

Schedule a meeting with someone in your Human Resource Department

Don’t wait. Contact your HR department as soon as possible to find out what benefits are available to you. Understanding your benefits will help you make a plan:

  • How much time will I take off after my baby is born?
  • How will I financially prepare for my leave?

When possible, make a face-to-face appointment with an HR representative. A phone call works, too, but I think people get more out of a face-to-face conversation.

Bring a pen, paper, and a friend/partner to your HR meeting. Taking notes will give your something to reference later, when you are at home trying to calculate a plan. And, a second set of ears may catch something that you missed, or may be able to serve as an educated partner when planning your leave.

While they can certainly provide some insight, don’t rely solely on a friend/co-worker or even your boss to tell you what your benefits are. Your friend’s experience may be different than yours. Your boss may not understand all of the benefits available for your specific situation. A human resource representative’s job is to share all available benefit information with you.

Obtain written documentation of your communication with HR.

Ask your HR representative to send you an email with a written copy of the company’s benefits/policies related to your maternity leave. In that email, you can also ask your HR representative to provide answers to your specific questions. This gives you a concrete documentation of your communication, which not only ensures that you are understanding the information correctly, but also gives you something to reference in case any hiccups arise later.

You might also consider sending your HR representative a follow-up email to thank them for their time, summarize your understanding of leave benefits, and notify them of your plan. This gives HR an opportunity to correct you if there are any errors. For instance, you might let them know:

  • The total number of weeks you plan to take for maternity leave.
  • Your anticipated start and end dates.
  • What income you expect to receive during that time (if any).
    • __ weeks of __% pay through the state, employers benefit, and/or short term disability.
    • Include how you plan to use PTO or sick time. Or, you might emphasize a plan to save ___ hours for use after you return to work.

Why it’s important to follow up with written documentation – Learn from my experience:

I spoke with an HR representative on the phone 2 months into my pregnancy. While I took notes, I did not ask for a written copy of the company policy. My notes stated that I would receive 60% pay for up to 12 weeks of maternity leave. I made a financial plan in order to afford taking 12 weeks off with partial pay from my employer, then use my banked PTO hours to return to work slowly.

Two weeks before my baby was born, I found out that I was only going to receive partial pay for 5 weeks (through short-term disability), and that any PTO/sick time I had saved was required to be used during my leave (meaning I would not have any banked PTO upon my return to work).

I realize I am fortunate to get any benefit at all, as I know there are many moms who don’t get a drop of support. (which is INSANE and will hopefully change – don’t get me started down that rabbit hole). Still, this sudden change in my expectation created a ton of stress for me. Was I going to have to return to work early? The thought of reducing time with my baby made my eyes well up with tears. I spent a lot of time that next week looking at the budget, trying to figure out a plan for my leave.

In regards to that first phone conversation with HR, perhaps I was provided with wrong information, or perhaps it was a misunderstanding on my end. Had I asked for a written copy of the policy, or at least documented our conversation through email, I would have had something more concrete to work with.

Questions to consider asking your HR representative

Job Security:

  • Will I be able to return to the same job when my leave is over? If not, will another job in this company be available to me? What job will I have?

Types of leave:

  • Do I qualify for FMLA leave, or for any other type of unpaid leave?
  • Do I qualify for any type of paid leave?
    • What leaves are paid?
    • How long is my paid leave?
    • What percentage of my normal pay will I receive?
    • Where is the paid benefit coming from – an employer-provided paid leave? short term disability? sick leave or PTO?
    • Does my paid leave run concurrently with any FMLA/unpaid leave, or can I use them sequentially? (For instance, if I am eligible for 6 weeks of paid leave and 12 weeks of FMLA unpaid leave, can I stack them together for a total of 18 weeks of leave?)
  • What specific types of leave are available to me for:
    • Pregnancy?
    • Postpartum Recovery?
    • Bonding with my new child?
  • What leave benefits are available to me if complications arise for me or my child, during pregnancy or after birth?

Short-term Disability Insurance:

(used for mom due to the physical recovery process after having a baby)

  • Do I have short-term disability insurance?
  • Can I use my STD insurance to provide a source of income after my baby is born?
  • What percentage of my pay will I receive through my STD insurance?
  • How long will I receive income through this benefit? Does this change depending on medical necessity (such as a c-section vs vaginal delivery, or for prenatal/postnatal complications)?

PTO/sick time:

  • Am I required to use sick time and/or PTO during my leave?
  • Can I save any of my sick time and/or PTO to use after I return to work?
  • What is the maximum hours of PTO/sick time that can I accrue? Can you estimate how many hours I will accrue by my due date, assuming I don’t use any time off until then?
  • Are there any additional benefits that will allow me to take a day off for a sick child (or for myself) after returning to work?

Length of Leave:

  • What is the maximum length of leave that I can take while still holding my job and/or health insurance benefits?
  • Do I have to take my leave all at one time?
    • Can I spread it out throughout the year? If I can spread it out, are there any restrictions on how I must disperse the leave? When must my leave be used by?
    • Can I use my leave to return to work slowly? For instance, can I use my leave to work part-time for the first few weeks?
  • When do I have to finalize the start/end dates of my leave?

Applying for leave(s):

  • How do I apply for each type of leave.
    • What forms do I need to fill out?
    • Who do I need to contact for each type of leave, and what is their contact information?
    • What is the application deadline for each type of leave?
  • Example: If you are receiving paid leave through short-term disability insurance, you will likely need to contact and notify the insurer of planned leave and due date.

Considering other benefits during leave:

  • Will I keep my health insurance and other benefits while on leave?
  • Insurance Premiums: Will my current insurance premiums be deducted from my paycheck during leave. And/or, will I have to pay for these premiums during my unpaid leave? If yes, how do I pay them?
  • FSA/HSA: Will the regular payroll deductions for my FSA/HSA be deducted while I am on leave? Will I have to pay for these deductions during my unpaid leave? If yes, how do I pay for them? Will the total amount of annual FSA/HSA savings be affected by my leave? To pay my hospital bills, can I use the max amount I will have saved in my FSA/HSA by the end of the year, or am I restricted to use only what is available in my account at the time I am billed? (you may also want to contact the company managing your FSA/HSA account for this info).

Other Questions:

  • Can you calculate what my paycheck will be when I am on leave? Or, can you calculate how much money I will owe during maternity leave.
  • Are there expectations of me when I am on leave? For example, am I supposed to check in – when and with whom?
  • Does my leave affect my “years of service”? How does this affect my qualification for raises, retirement, seniority, promotion, etc.
  • Are there any benefits available to me that I haven’t asked about? Many employers offer benefits that may be helpful to new moms/parents. Examples of benefits available through my employer (free or reduced cost) were:
    • Legal assistance for a variety of topics, ranging from real estate matters, to document preparation, to creating a will.
    • Counseling for postpartum depression.
    • Financial planning assistance.
    • Some employers provide childcare assistance.

Do you plan to breastfeed when you return to work?

  • Does my insurance cover the cost of a breast pump? If so, which one? How do I apply for the pump? When can I apply for the pump?
  • When I return to work, where can I pump?
  • How can I arrange my schedule to meet my pumping needs?
  • Remember, your right to pump at work is protected by law. Your employer must provide reasonable accommodations to meet your pumping needs. See the NCSL page on breastfeeding laws.

Things to consider after your conversation with HR

If the leave options available to you do not meet your expectations or wishes, it’s worth having a conversation with your boss. Perhaps there is some wiggle room in the company policy. Maybe they are able to arrange an individualized plan that can meet the needs of both you and your employer. You will not know if you don’t ask.

If your employer is unable to meet your needs, you might look into other options. Can you transfer to another job within the company? If you apply for another job altogether, make sure you look in depth at their benefits and policies before you make the jump! Word of advice – don’t make an impulsive decision. Really think about it.

My experience: During my last month of maternity leave, every ounce of my emotional being was telling me to quit my job (or at least go down to part-time). I couldn’t bear the thought of leaving my little girl. Somehow, I listened to the small little voice of reason in the back of my mind that told me to try going back to work. I absolutely HATED it for the first few weeks. But, it did slowly get easier (never easy, but definitely easier). Had I made a rash decision to quit/go to part-time, the financial burden on my family would have outweighed the burden of me returning to work. While it was and sometimes still is extremely difficult, I am glad I didn’t make any quick, emotional decisions.

If you don’t have short-term disability insurance, consider purchasing some. Don’t just buy any policy, though. Do a thorough cost-benefit analysis to see if it’s worth it. Consider the following:

  • Would you get more in pay-out than you would have to pay in premiums?
  • Is pregnancy considered a pre-existing condition? Some STD policies require you to have the insurance before you become pregnant in order to gather benefits at birth.
  • Does the policy have a waiting period? My STD offered “6 weeks” of benefit, but really only 5 weeks of these were paid due to a 1 week waiting period.

Consider different scenarios that could arise. This is a great recommendation from Katy Dahl in the podcast episode I mentioned earlier. First, understand your coverage for an uncomplicated pregnancy. Then, think about how your benefits might change in a variety of different situations. For instance, what happens if you have medical complications (maybe you are put on bedrest towards the end of pregnancy, maybe you will need a c-section, or maybe there will be postpartum complications). Or, what happens if you take some leave and/or a vacation before your baby is born? Understanding the “what ifs” can reduce stress if any new/unexpected situations arise later. If you think of a situation and aren’t sure how it affects your benefits, give HR another call.

Questions are likely to come up after your first conversation with HR. Don’t be afraid to call, email, and/or meet with an HR representative multiple times until you have a clear understanding of your benefits.

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