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Wednesday, July 11, 2007

How Maternity Leave Works

Although several young women each year take a leave of absence for the birth of a child, the actual mechanics of "maternity leave" are probably not well understood. A couple of times each year someone, usually in leadership, complains that we're not sufficiently "family friendly" in our policies. It may be a good time to review the issues and policies surrounding these types of leaves of absence and point out what benefits are and aren't available to women seeking maternity leaves.

Although maternity leave is a common phrase, there actually is no such thing as a separate or distinct leave of absence for the birth of a child. These disappeared after the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978, which in all good intention was enacted to provide better job protection to expectant and new mothers. The law made it illegal to treat pregnant workers differently than any other worker medically unable to work. The unintended consequence, however, was that companies' only safe harbor from charges of discrimination was to eliminate all specific pregnancy-related leaves and roll them all into a comprehensive Short Term Disability policy. The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (commonly referred to as FMLA) further defined and expanded federal protection for all type of personal medical leaves. Within the context of these two laws, here's how maternity leave now works.

FMLA requires that an employee submit a medical certification, in a format proscribed by the law on a form provided by the government (which we use), indicating that the employee cannot perform their duties due to medical circumstances. Thus certified, the employee has a right to take up to 12 weeks unpaid leave and must be returned to their original or comparable position. If the medical certification is for less than 12 weeks, then the employee must return to work or re-certify at the end of the original certification. While on FMLA, the employer may take some or all of the employee's paid time off to cover those absences. This avoids the potential for an employee having 12 weeks protected leave, and then taking all their vacation time off as well. Those employees on FMLA, who have exhausted their paid time off, are eligible for the company's Short Term Disability benefit, which is two weeks of 100% salary continuation for every year of completed service (a generous benefit compared to most other companies of one week per year and 60% salary continuation).

Okay, all that's complicated, but here's where it all comes together.

If you are pregnant and need to take a leave of absence, you get the standard FMLA certification form from HR and take it to your doctor. Your doctor will know what do to, and will complete that form and return it to us either directly or through you. When your delivery date nears and its time to go on leave, there is a five day elimination period before disability benefits begin. For those five days you are charged PTO. After that, any available PTO time in excess of 40 hours is taken at the start of the leave. We require all new mothers to keep a balance of 40 hours, even if that means taking some maternity leave unpaid, in order to protect your attendance for absences due to sick infants.

After your PTO is drawn down to a balance of 40 hours, your short term disability benefits begin. Those will last as long as your service determines. The typical medical certification from most OB/GYNs for typical childbirth is 4-6 weeks for a vaginal delivery and 6-8 for cesarean section. Since everyone starts with three weeks PTO, and you can use two of those weeks for maternity, anyone with three years of service or more will have enough PTO and disability benefit to take a full eight week c-section maternity leave without losing a penny of salary. Our recent change in PTO policy allows you to carry over up to 40 hours each year and further makes it possible to take your entire maternity leave without losing salary.

FMLA will allow, with your doctor's certification, up to 12 weeks, and Tennessee law allows another 4 for a total of 16 weeks, but these additional weeks would be unpaid unless you have enough years of service to cover them.

So, with this type of 100% paid benefit, why the annual calls or more benefits? Well, they usually come from these situations. Low-service employees with less than three years service and/or with complications have to take more of their leave unpaid due to lack of disability benefits. Also, some people use up their available PTO time before their maternity leave, lessening their available paid weeks. Finally, some new mothers want bonding time with their new baby, and disability benefits don't cover that. When you no longer meet the definition of a disability (i.e. unable to work as opposed to not wanting to leave your new child for work), those benefits stop and the leave once again becomes unpaid. The choice is then to discontinue the leave or forego the salary continuation and most come back to work.

So hopefully now you have the information you need to plan your leave to your family's greatest benefit. If you're planning on starting or expanding your family this year, save your vacation time, watch your service date (you get two weeks pay for every completed year of service) and stay at work prior to delivery as long as is medically safe (as determined by your doctor) so that the majority of your paid time is available to you post-delivery.

As always, please let us know in HR if you have any questions or if we can help you in any way.