Photo courtesy of Laercio Cavalcanti
If your company doesn’t offer maternity leave, there are a few things you can do. In most cases, you still have the right under federal law to unpaid maternity leave; just know that the U.S. doesn’t have guaranteed paid parental leave.
According to research from the Congressional Research Service (CRS), only 16 percent of employees working in the private industry have access to paid family leave. The same research shows that paid family leave was more likely to be available in the professional and technical operations and industries; high-paying occupations; to full-time employees; and to workers in larger companies.
Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics also reveals that 6 percent of part-time workers in the private industry have paid family leave, while 19 percent of full-time workers have it, and just 5 percent of those in administrative and waste services have paid family leave, the lowest percentage in the private industry, followed by the construction industry at 6 percent.
Given that data, odds are, your workplace might not offer paid maternity leave. Even so, you can still negotiate with your employer based on your needs and the laws in place. And remember, it never hurts to ask for exactly what you want.
Research all regulations and protections
First, you want to make sure you’re prepared before you dive into negotiations. This means you need to fully understand the current laws and the rights you have.
On a federal level, you have the right to unpaid maternity leave under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) for 12 weeks. However, this applies only if:
You work at a company with over 50 employees working within a 75-mile radius
You’ve worked at your job for at least 1,250 hours over the last year
You’ve been at the company for at least a year
Same-sex couples are eligible for this protection if the child is biological, adopted, fostered, a stepchild, or a legal ward. And, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act protect you against discrimination or unfair treatment while you’re pregnant or on maternity leave—like changing your role or eliminating your position entirely.
Many U.S. states have regulations in place that require employers to provide “reasonable accomodations” to pregnant workers, and some states must provide paid family leave benefits to employees in their states. Rights vary for L.G.B.T. parents from state to state, so make sure you research all protections available to you in your state, or lack thereof.
Once you’re aware of the federal and state laws, you can start to craft a plan to bring to your manager or HR.
Know what to ask for
Next, you need to figure out how to ask for paid time off and how much you need. This isn’t going to be easy, but if you’re adequately prepared, you can successfully get the funded time away you really need.
Usually an in-person meeting is effective. (Tip: Let your boss know about your pregnancy and your future time away before the rest of the office finds out.)
You should start by asking for 12 weeks of paid leave, as parenting expert Diane Mehta wrote for The New York Times.
Remember that you may not earn the same salary while you’re away—many states that do offer paid parental leave offer about 55 to 67 percent of your normal wage, for 10 to 12 weeks.
When you start negotiating, understand that what you may end up with is a partially paid time-off plan. But it’s better than nothing!
Negotiate a plan
It’s no secret that when you’re away, certain responsibilities may not be taken care of or will fall to other workers at the company. Especially if your company has no maternity leave policy, this is an opportunity for you to help them come up with a plan that works for everyone.
Acknowledge the needs of the company, but also stress your own needs for your family. Your time off isn’t going to be a vacation, far from it, but unfortunately your coworkers may give you a hard time.
How to respond? Politely show them statistics about postpartum depression and new mothers’ mental health, or that a longer maternity leave has been known to reduce infant mortality rates.
Another way to reduce the likelihood of pushback is to list the maternity leave policies of other companies, including competitors. You could even base your request on these other policies.
When dealing with your time off request specifically, examples of reasons that support your case could be:
Your partner’s work schedule (or lack of a partner or co-caretaker)
Your priorities to create and sustain a positive relationship with your child
Your plans for breastfeeding
Stats on the mental and physical health of new mothers
These considerations are not always widely known. And unfortunately those companies that have never had to face these issues before simply may not know the facts about pregnancy, parental leave, or postpartum care.
What if they say no?
No matter how hard you’ve worked to prepare for negotiations, it’s still a possibility that they’ll say no. At least you know that, at the very least, you have 12 weeks of unpaid leave, and your job must still be there for you after you’ve used that time. It’s the law.
If you want to add to your pay while you’re taking advantage of the federally mandated leave, it may be smart to start saving up any sick or vacation days your company offers you. These reserve days will help you extend your leave while giving you some paid time off after you give birth.
Another important note is that the 12 weeks you’re given under federal law doesn’t have to be used all at once. You could actually use some of it, go back to work for a week or two, and then take off another few weeks. You could use this to your advantage to come back to working full-time slowly, on your own schedule. Some new mothers decide to take off one or two days per week at first.
Another option is to negotiate where you work. Ask if you could do your job remotely as you get back into the swing of things, or if you can work from home a day or two per week.
Read more: How to Negotiate Flexible Work Hours
If you’re not yet pregnant but plan to be in the future, it’s always wise to ask a company you’re thinking of working for about their maternity leave policy, and even negotiate your benefits at this stage instead of later when you become pregnant.
Finally, you’re not alone. Within any office, there are likely to be supporters you can talk to and bring together to push back if your company is really not willing to budge on offering a decent maternity leave policy.
You have rights and needs. Approach your negotiations with your manager or HR representatives with knowledge about laws and your own realistic needs.