Returning to work post maternity leave involves a full array of challenges for mothers, but it also involves a number of legal protections. These are important. Employees, and their careers, without knowledge of these rights must often deal with employers who refuse to follow the law.

The Rights of Maternity Leave

The 1964 Civil Rights Act a measure of protection against discrimination in the workplace surrounding maternity leave. This law protects employees from discrimination based on a sex, race, disability, age, nationality, religion and more. Protection extends to nearly all forms of employment procedures, including benefits and leave.

Also at the federal level, it’s the Family and Medical Leave Act that most turn to for information on the rights of working mothers who decide to take maternity leave. According to the act women are allowed up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for birth, delivery and postpartum recovery as well as birth-related medical conditions before they must return to work. Once they come back, employers must follow a number of rules and guidelines to ensure they are treated fairly.

It’s important to keep in mind the leave granted under the FMLA is not paid leave. Unpaid leave is generally the norm even among states, although some are beginning to change that in key areas. Also some companies are now voluntarily offering paid leave. There are these basic rights of pregnancy leave under the FMLA:

  1. The right to return to the same or equivalent job
  2. The right not to be discriminated against based on the fact that leave was taken or that you were pregnant.
  3. The right to return to an altered schedule of intermittent or part-time work.

According to the EEOC, any women returning from maternity leave must be treated the same as other workers allowed leave for a temporary disability.

In addition, workers must be allowed to work as long as she can perform her job before she takes maternity leave. In other words, an employer may not force a worker to leave work because she is pregnant nor can it force her to take less pay or discriminate in other ways regarding her pregnancy or opportunity to take maternity leave.

Facing Pregnancy Leave Challenges and Pitfalls

Some mothers have no choice but to take just a short amount of pregnancy leave – sometimes much less than the amount they are allowed according to law. The lack of paid leave in the U.S. makes choices challenging for working mothers who cannot make ends meet and care for newborns full-time.

From a legal perspective, the biggest challenges arise when employers force working mothers to make decisions they are under no obligation to make or withhold options and opportunities from them simply because they are pregnant or choosing to exercise their rights to maternity leave. Watch for discriminatory tactics in key areas such as:

  • Requesting short term disability benefits
  • Requesting extensions of FMLA leave
  • Requesting additional time off
  • Withholding health insurance coverage

Within the context of insurance coverage, the FMLA requires employers to keep health insurance coverage going even during the up to 12 weeks an employee is on leave. Even if the employer opts to offer COBRA benefits instead, it’s still up to your company to ensure that health insurance remains free of discrimination at your job before, during and after leave time.

Each of these areas require fair and equal treatment from employers according to federal law. This means that employers must treat mothers returning to work from maternity leave the same way they treat other workers with similar requests. Any attempt to discriminate against returning mothers could make an employer potentially liable for employment discrimination.

Qualifying for FMLA Protections for Maternity Leave

The FMLA currently does not apply to every company. Only employers with 50 or more employees must abide by its rules. Also, workers need at least 1250 hours of work in the first 12 months of employment before FMLA protection can begin.

It is common for companies to require that employees use vacation time and sick days available to them before use of FMLA leave time will be granted. Check with your HR department for details on the exact policy at your company. Also, the FMLA can only apply to one person per couple at any one workplace, so if you and your spouse or partner are working together, be sure to keep this in mind.

However, even if your company falls outside the requirements of federal law, there may be state law that can help. Check with your state’s Department of Labor laws just to be sure.

States and Maternity Leave

Only three states, California, New Jersey and Rhode Island, currently offer paid leave under the FMLA, and many more states are set to add the provision to current leave laws. At the state level, employees can expect to find laws that are either similar to the federal laws or that are more expansive. Some offer coverage for companies with less than 50 workers or may offer more than the 12 weeks of leave offered at the federal level.

Getting the Help You Need with Maternity Leave

Getting the help you need to tackle the legal aspects of maternity leave issues can be as easy as contacting an experienced employment discrimination attorney in your area. The most important thing to remember is that your rights are under strong protection at both the federal and state level. No matter how complex your issue, these rights should never be ignored. If you’re faced with a workplace dilemma involving maternity leave, contact your attorney right away.