Did you know that only 12 percent of private sector workers get maternity leave benefits? My guess is that if you're in the majority--the 88 percent of moms who don't--you might have had a clue. I didn't.

For the first 16 years of my career, I was employed by large companies that claimed to have generous benefits. Not having any point of comparison, this statement didn't mean much to me. Now, I realize just how true that was. I had my first two children while employed full-time at a company with maternity leave benefits. I had my third child after I'd started working as an independent consultant and, of course, didn't have any maternity leave benefits because I'd opted into a business model that meant I got paid when I worked--no more, no less.

Benefits are something you can take for granted if you have them and do anything to get if you don't. I was first tipped off to this inequity, and the real problems it creates for businesses and the economy, from this TED talk by author Jessica Shortall. There are additional studies and reports like this one from the Department of Labor that back up the statistics.

What action can you reasonably take if you're planning to have a baby and don't have maternity leave benefits?

To start, know the law. If your company has more than 50 employees, your leave is covered under the Family and Medical Leave Act but--as you surely realize--it's not paid. However, this law protects your job for up to 12 weeks.

Know that policies vary by state. California, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and Connecticut all require some amount of paid leave. In recent and exciting news, San Francisco recently passed the most generous paid leave policy requiring employers to offer up to six weeks of paid leave at full salary. As a side note, the Department of Defense took a big, progressive step forward and extended paid maternity leave to 12 weeks. Activist organizations, such as MomsRising, offer information and other resources to parents who want to take a more active role in influencing state and federal lawmakers.

 

  1. Bank your available days off. I suspect that if you're an expectant mom without maternity leave benefits, you're already doing this. Before you go saving up your days, meet with HR to understand the policies about any caps on the amount of time you can "bank" and what rules might exist on how many days off you can take in a row.
  2. Negotiate with your employer. For many organizations, the cost to recruit and train new employees is significant. For strong performers, most employers would much rather keep the staff they have than start over with someone new. Before scheduling time with your boss, take some time to write down what you'd like--the approximate date you'll be out, the number of weeks or months you'd like to take off, any ideas you have for how to cover your responsibilities, whether or not part-time, flextime, or working from home is an option, and so on. Having a clear idea of what you're asking for is always best when entering negotiations.
  3. If you're early in your pregnancy, consider looking for a new job. Some companies have restrictions on benefits based on the time with the company. If you're interviewing new employers, make sure you know the policies.
  4. Look for opportunities to make extra money. If you don't have restrictions on secondary employment, you might want to look for other ways to earn extra income such as freelance editing or writing. The cushion will help after the baby arrives and a whole new set of expenses start rolling in.

As Shortall mentioned in her TED talk, I believe that the lack of maternity leave benefits isn't just a problem for the families of those 88 percent but is a problem for us all. We can all rally together to support increased benefits for parents that results in a stronger, more resilient business and families.

For additional information, this article from What To Expect provides a comprehensive list of considerations and here are some of my ideas on what you can do to make the transitions a bit easier.