Unpaid Maternity Leave? Here's Your 13-Step Plan to Making it Work

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Pregnant woman without paid maternity leave

May 18, 2024 at 3:36PM UTC

Did you know that the U.S. is the only industrialized country in the world to not mandate some form of paid maternity leave? In fact, most civilian employees (88%) have no access to paid maternity leave or paid paternity leave in America. Though a federal law, the Family Medical Leave Act, guarantees up to 12 weeks of unpaid time off, you may not qualify if you work for a small employer or have been at that employer less than one year. Moreover, FMLA constitutes as an unpaid maternity leave.

How long does an employer have to hold your job for maternity leave?

According to the FMLA, parents can take off 12 weeks — unpaid — to care for a new child. This means that your employer must protect that job during those 12 months. But FMLA leave only applies to you if your company has more than 50 employees, and you’ve worked at least 1,250 hours in the year prior. Some states have extended FMLA protections — some states give people more time off, or allow people in smaller companies this time too.

Can fathers take maternity leave?

Maternity leave for men is called paternity leave. And yes, men are eligible to take time off to care for a new child under FMLA. The same rules and regulations apply. 

How much time should you take off for maternity leave?

How much time you take off varies from parent to parent. Some parents are ready to jump right back into work, while others want more time. FMLA allows for 12 weeks of unpaid time off — so you have at least 12 weeks to work with if you meet the requirements.  To know what’s best for you, understand your options. Does your company offer extended leave? Is it paid? Will you be struggling to make ends meet if you take more time than you are given? Talk to HR and your doctor to find the solution that’s right for you.
If you’re a pregnant employee and have realized that you’re one of the millions of women without access to pay during your maternity leave months and your employer offers nothing while you’re away from work, you may need to start planning now for your upcoming financial situation. If you’re currently pregnant, this means you have less than a year to start planning on how to maximize your time away from work after having a baby. 

How to Plan For Your Unpaid Maternity Leave

1. Know your rights.

Find out what your maternity leave rights are by investigating your company’s maternity leave policies and the state laws on parental leave where you work. If you are lucky and work in one of the few states that offer some paid family leave, you may qualify for some funding through the state’s short-term disability leave programs.

2. Short-term disability leave — is it for you?

Take out a short-term disability insurance policy if you plan to become pregnant in the near future and are a freelancer or self-employed, or simply are not covered under your employer’s policy. Pregnancy, as well as the postpartum period, is one of the most commonly covered “disabilities” that prevent an employee from working. Just make sure that if you purchase a short-term disability policy that you read the fine print so you are satisfied with the coverage you will receive. At some employers, short-term disability is a benefit offered to some (or all) employees. At some companies you must elect into this optional benefit before you are pregnant (talk about a Catch 22).
Once you do so, you will see monthly deductions come from your paycheck, but at least you will know that your pay will be partially covered when you become pregnant. For those employers who do offer short-term disability insurance, there may be a portion of the expense that the employee pays for. Typically, short-term disability leave policies cover six weeks of pay at some percentage (up to 100% depending on your policy) for a normal birth and eight weeks of pay for a Caesarean birth.

3. Start those savings.

Start stashing away your savings. Even a small amount per week will make a big difference when you aren’t working toward the end of your pregnancy. If you are not pregnant yet, this is a good time to start thinking about the future. Consider your months’ expenses and household budget, and make a financial plan. Be sure to budget carefully for your full length of maternity leave. If health conditions for you or your baby arise, your leave of absence could be longer than anticipated.

4. Negotiate to see if you can change your company’s family leave policy.

Try to negotiate for some small amount of paid maternity leave. While this is not something we believe many women do, there is no harm in asking, especially if you can make a case that you can make it worth your employer’s while. Even a few extra paid days or a temporary “sick leave” can make a difference financially. You may even want to consider banding together with other women at your company to advocate for a better maternity leave policy. There’s strength in numbers, and we’ve seen countless instances of women achieving greater equality and benefits in the workplace as a group effort. 

5. Save up that PTO.

Make sure you have maximized your paid time off or vacation days after having a baby. If there’s any way to do it during your pregnancy, try to postpone the use of your vacation days until you have your baby. That way, you will receive some money during your time off. If there’s any way to save up your unused vacation days from prior years and you had the foresight to plan, this may add to your current year’s allotment of paid days off.

6. Use your network.

Ask for help. You can ask close family members and friends to pitch in to cover a few days — or even a few weeks — of leave. Even if your friends and family may not be able to chip in financially, they may be able to chip in their time — perhaps they could take a few vacation or holiday days to help babysit if you have to return to work immediately. Friends and family may also have lightly used or perfectly good baby care supplies ranging from clothing items to bedding and toys. Anything helps.

7. Get creative about making your own maternity allowance.

We know this option may not be for everybody, but maybe consider starting a crowdfunding campaign for your maternity leave on Indiegogo or GoFundMe. You could simply start collecting small amounts from second- or third-degree connections (e.g. friends of friends). Broadcasting your story in an honest way can elicit the generosity of strangers.

8. Look into part-time work, if applicable.

Take on some temporary part-time work or ask for additional hours at work. Depending on the type of work you do, this may not be possible (e.g. there is only so much physical labor that may be advisable while pregnant). Even if your work is typically behind a desk, it may not be easy to take on additional work while you’re dealing with physical fatigue. However, for some women with easier pregnancies, this may be a possibility if you’re really crunched for cash. For example, you may be able to take on consulting work, or freelance assignments, and find such work through online marketplaces for remote jobs.

9. Investigate your local resources.

Contact your local government and non-profit organizations for access to goods and services as diverse as baby supplies (ranging from formula to diapers), counseling, education and community support services for new children, mothers and families. 
Many of these organizations and maternity protections are state or even county and city-specific. For instance, if you live in Washington State, an employer's lack of paid leave of absence for new parents may be a lesser problem. That’s because, in January 2017, the state passed the most generous paid parental leave and sick leave laws in the country (albeit these won’t go into effect until 2020). Be sure to check out all the resources and legal protections that are speicfic to your particular zip code.
Oganizations like Help a Mother Out (national), Center for Family Services (in New Jersey), The Mommies Network (national), Cradles to Crayons (Boston and Philadelphia), The Homeless Prenantal Program (San Francisco) and Newborns in Need (nationwide) will give you a sense of the wide range of options for those who need help. Babble has compiled a list of the best charities for babies and small children that is quite comprehensive and may be helpful for those beginning their research.

10. Charge it (within reason).

You can always make more use of your credit cards. While it’s scary to take on debt, if you feel confident this is a temporary financial issue, that is what credit cards are for and you can be conservative to try to bridge any coverage you may not be able to afford from your savings alone.

11. Understand if your medical benefits be improved.

Look into what it would cost to expand your family medical benefits. Just in case your childbirth medical care costs end up being more than you expect, now is a good time to examine the fine print on your health insurance and see what is covered and isn't. You may find out that increasing your monthly payments slightly now will help you save more on your ultimate hospital bill.

12. Minimize your paycheck deductions.

Pregnant employees should look carefully into what deductions are coming out of their paychecks. Are you contributing the maximum to your 401K, for example? While you may not want to touch your longer-term retirement funds, you may want to consider reducing those contributions temporarily if you're really trying to maximize your current salary and savings for the short-to-medium term. You can always increase your contributions after you return to work and most of your baby-related expenses are under control.

13. Remember your own strength.

Finally, if you do have no choice but to return to work sooner than you want, know that many other mothers have been in your unpaid maternity leave shoes, and that you’re far from alone. You are doing the best that you can in a very emotional and difficult situation. We’re in awe of your strength and wish you all the best!

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