Could Maternity Leave Cost You Your Job

The good news in the United States is that maternity leave is protected by law. The bad news is that women still face discrimination, missed career opportunities and job losses as a result of pregnancy and maternity leave. Knowing your rights under the law may help you if you find yourself in this situation, but it won't help to pay the bills if you find yourself out of work.

Maternity Leave Laws
All working Americans are protected by the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978, an amendment to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that prohibits employers from discriminating against pregnant women. Under this Act,

  • An employer cannot refuse to hire a woman because of pregnancy.
  • An employer cannot limit an employee's hours or duties due to pregnancy.
  • An employer cannot terminate an employee simply for taking maternity leave.

The amount of maternity leave allowed under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act is not specified; rather, it depends on the policies the employer has in place for short-term disability leave. If an employer allows 30 days of short-term disability prior to termination, the law only requires that employer to provide the same benefit for maternity leave.

The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) requires companies to provide 60 days of matrenity leave for full-time employees and 30 days of leave for part-time employees. Only companies with more than 50 employees working within 75 miles of a workplace are required to participate.

Neither law requires your employer to offer paid maternity leave, although some employers do offer paid leave. Employers also vary in the amount of leave they grant, with some requiring workers to return at the end of federally mandated periods.

Is My Job in Jeopardy?
The first step in planning maternity leave is to talk to your manager or your company's human resources department. Find out if you're eligible under FMLA and if your employer offers extended leave or paid leave.

Next, find out what happens if you need more leave than you're allowed under the law. Complications late in pregnancy or after childbirth could keep you at home longer than you expected. Employers do have the right to terminate you if your leave extends past federally mandated limits. Even if you don't expect to need extra leave, it's a good idea to get an extension in writing before your leave begins. This will protect you if your maternity leave lasts longer than expected.

The best time to have this conversation with your employer is at the start of your second trimester. Even if you haven't told your friends, tell your manager and start putting a maternity leave plan together. Under the FMLA, you're required to give written notice of your maternity leave plans.

What to Do If You Suspect Discrimination
It is possible for you to lose your job while you're out on maternity leave. If your employer closes down or has a round of layoffs during your leave, you can be laid off legally. In this case, you're treated like any other worker out on short-term disability. Proving discrimination in these cases is extremely difficult, especially if a significant number of workers have been let go or if the employer can demonstrate slow growth or a reduction in business.

You can also lose your job if you need additional time away after your child is born. It's a good idea to stay in touch with your employer while you're on leave. Let your manager or human resources department know about any situations that may require additional leave and get written approval to take it. If your leave runs out and you're not back at work, you can be terminated. Many employers require workers on leave to file a written statement of their intent to return. This statement should be sent at least two weeks before you plan to be back on the job. Failing to file this statement offers legal grounds for your termination.

If you feel that discrimination has cost you your job, you can file a claim with the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Claims should be filed within 180 days of your notice of termination. If discrimination is found, you may be entitled to compensation for lost time and reinstatement at your old job. 

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