The Family Medical Leave Act was meant to protect our jobs when we have kids. But some parents are surprised to learn their jobs may not be guaranteed, after all.
I conceived my second child in May 2018 — after a miscarriage and 16 months of trying — and to say I was thrilled would be an understatement.I was ecstatic.
However, one big obstacle stood between me and my excitement: a lack of parental leave. Why? Because I was hired by a new company in June, 3 days before I took a positive pregnancy test.
I wasn’t slated to start until 2 weeks later, right after the Fourth of July. But because I was newly hired, I wasn’t eligible for leave per the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA).
My job was, more or less, unprotected.
I’m not the only one this has happened to. FMLA only covers individuals once they have been employed for one full year or more and if their company employs 50 or more full-time employees working within 75 miles of the company worksite.
There is also an hourly component to FMLA eligibility. Employees are required to work 1,250 hours in the 12-month period prior to taking leave. That breaks down to at least 26 hours per week.
These stipulations make for a hugelyflawed policy. In fact, in 2013, Ellen Bravo of Family Values @ Work told NPR this means that 40 percent of the American workforce is not covered.
Small employers are not required to follow the rules of FMLA. Part-time employees are not allowed to participate in the job protection program. New employees are left high and dry. Contractors and freelancers cannot take medical leave, period.
All of this is problematic for new and expectant parents, and also for those who may be sick, injured or are tasked with caring for a chronically ill family member.
So what can you do if you find yourself in an unprotected position like I was? Here’s what I learned.
The first thing you should do is speak with your employer. Some companies will make special accommodations or arrangements. For instance, they may allow you to work part time or work from home.
Others may extend additional benefits. If your employer has an internal parental leave program, for example, they may allow you to participate — regardless of how long you’ve been employed. Borrowing time off may also be an option.
Expectant parents can (and should) research parental leave programs within their company, community, and state.
California, for example, provides protections similar to the FMLA, but with fewer eligibility restrictions. Other states like New York offer wage replacement along with job protection, as do New Jersey, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Oregon and Washington. The guidelines are constantly changing; check with your state for additional information.
If you are injured or sick, are caring for a chronically ill family member, or dealing with certain pre- or postnatal conditions you may qualify for short-term disability.
However, like FMLA, you must meet certain criteria to qualify. What’s more, not all states offer short-term disability for pregnancy or a pregnancy-related condition. Again, check with your employer and your state for more information.
Taking PTO, or paid time off, is also an option, but depending on accrual rates and the type of work you do, this option may or may not be a realistic choice. What’s more, even if you do qualify, your time off will likely be limited to 2 weeks, or less.
That said, using PTO may help you extend your postpartum leave, particularly if you qualify for another program — like an employer or state-run parental leave plan.
The good news is my employer worked with me. I was able to take 3 months off, fully paid. But they could have terminated me at any time, and that speaks volumes.
It is part of a larger issue, and that issue is the state of maternal healthcare in America. Because America is the only industrialized country without some form of national paid leave.
Or, as Bravo stated in a 2018 article for Slate, America, “the richest country in the world, stands alongside only Papua New Guinea in having zero weeks of paid leave.”
And this, coupled with the fact that parents have to cobble together wages and time off, is a joke. It is also the reason why many return to work days or weeks after welcoming a child.
According to a 2012 survey prepared for the U.S. Department of Labor, about 1 in 4 women return to work only 2 weeks after giving birth. What’s more, a 2013 report by the Pew Research Center stated about 27 percent of American mothers quit their jobs to take care of family.
But we can do better. We must do better, and as parents and people, we need to put pressure on our employers and elected officials. As Bravo told Slate, “We need a federal law that will pick up where FMLA left off 25 years ago.”
American families deserve so much more.
Kimberly Zapata is a mother, writer, and mental health advocate. Her work has appeared on several sites, including the Washington Post, HuffPost, Oprah, Vice, Parents, Health, and Scary Mommy — to name a few — and when her nose isn’t buried in work (or a good book), Kimberly spends her free time running Greater Than: Illness, a nonprofit organization that aims to empower children and young adults struggling with mental health conditions. Follow Kimberly on Facebook or Twitter.