Written by attorney Mark S Britton

The Rights of Mothers and Soon-to-be Moms in the Workplace

Ah, the work/life balance. For many women, this should be called the "work/mommy" balance, because after working all day and being a mommy all night, there is little else to balance. Moreover, most women find the work/mommy "balance" to be more like being drawn and quartered -- painfully being pulled in opposing directions by the overwhelming demands of each role -- always feeling they are failing at one or the other, if not both. Now, I don't want to paint too bleak of a picture. Parenthood is a beautiful, magical thing -- but it is truly challenging for the working mom.

For some women, these challenges begin when they announce to their employer that they are pregnant. Although everyone is congratulatory and offers hugs all around, male and female managers alike will often wonder whether you securing the leading role as "mommy" will affect your performance as understudy "worker bee" on their main stage. This is a legitimate concern considering that you don't even know how this new role in an evening drama will affect you personally or professionally.

The good news is that the best of employers will make every accommodation to ensure that you are able to have a stress-free birth and recovery. Notice that I did not include "pregnancy" because, until you have your baby, most employers will not alter their expectations regarding your work. Many women work up until the day, if not the hour, of their pregnancy and barely have time to punch the time clock on their way to the hospital.

What if you have an employer that is not committed to accommodating your choice to bear children? What about an employer who assumes that you will be shortly exiting stage left and would rather give you the Sheppard's Hook long before you offer your tearful but voluntary final bow?

The good news is you have rights should you encounter a less than sympathetic employer regarding your pregnancy. The bad news is that you live in the United States. Yes, that's right: The U.S. disappoints when it comes to parental leave. The U.S., along with Lesotho, Liberia, Swaziland, and Papua New Guinea (I'm not making this up) are the only countries that don't guarantee paid parental leave.

Being one to focus on the good news rather than the bad, let's have a look at the rights you do have under both federal and state law in the U.S.:

Pregnancy Discrimination Act

As its name implies, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (whose regretful acronym is "PDA") is a federal law that prohibits your employer from discriminating against you from the moment you announce you are "with child." These rights extend through childbirth and any disability resulting there from. These rights prohibit the following:

  • Firing you because you are pregnant or suffering from a pregnancy-related illness or disability.
  • Forcing you to go on parental leave. You can work as long as you are able to while pregnant, although you may not see this as a benefit.
  • Treating you differently from anyone else with a medical-related disability. So, if your organization has policies regarding medically-related disabilities, your employer must afford you the same modified work tasks or disability leave they offer to other disabled employees.
  • Terminating you while on parental leave. You must also continue to accrue the same seniority and vacation benefits.

Keep in mind that the PDA is not bullet-proof. It only applies to companies with 15 or more employees. Also, many of the rights around benefits and security only apply if your employer offers the same benefits and security to other employees. In other words, the PDA only requires that your employer treat the pregnant you equally, not specially, vis-a-vis your co-workers.

Family and Medical Leave Act

The Family and Medical Leave Act, or FLMA, is another, newer federal law that allows a new mother -- whether through childbirth or adoption -- or her partner to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave in the 12 months following the birth date of their child. You can take this leave all at once or, easier on paper than in practice, in installments following the birth of your baby. Similar to the PDA, the FLMA requires your employer to reinstate you at the same or equivalent job when you return.

Unfortunately, there are even more bullet holes in the FMLA than the PDA. It only applies to companies with 50 or more employees and, typically, you need to have worked for a full year or 1250 hours before your company's FMLA obligations kick in. So, don't plan on getting hired at IBM, having a baby the next month and leading a life of 12-week luxury, albeit unpaid, while Big Blue patiently waits.

The good news is that many employers who have less than 50 employees will have employment policies that mirror or even expand the benefits mandated for larger companies under the FMLA. And once those policies are in place, you are entitled to them under the PDA and potentially other state laws.

State Pregnancy Protection Laws

The state that you live in may have its own laws offering you additional rights regarding your pregnancy and parental leave. The most common and valuable of these additional rights is Short-Term Disability coverage (another regretful acronym of "STD"). STD is designed to cover your wages (or at least a portion of them) due to some form of disability including disability resulting from pregnancy and/or childbirth.

Most states cap the amount of STD benefits, with six weeks typically being the amount of time you are covered for pregnancy. Some states go as high as 12 weeks or extend the time due to complications with your pregnancy (e.g., bed rest) or birth (e.g., a C-section). Your state will usually cover 50% to 66% of your income and you will probably be required to pay an amount from each paycheck to cover your salary (or a portion of it) during the time that you are disabled.

Your company's human resources department can educate you on your state's STD coverage and any other rights available in your state. He or she can also help you maximize your leave using a combination of parental, personal, vacation and/or disability leave.

In a nutshell, these are your various rights once you are pregnant. The key is to do your research early in your pregnancy regarding the particular facts of your employment situation. With your legal house in order, you will feel that much more comfortable when the house lights go down. You will be that much more prepared to hit the "mommy" stage with grace and aplomb.

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