Thursday, February 9, 2012

Making sense of maternity leave

Learning the ins and outs of your company's maternity leave policies can be maddening. For starters, no one you talk to seems to have the right answers, and definitely no one has all the answers. Then, you read about all the benefits the French get when they have babies and you might just drive yourself mad when you find out that as an American you basically get Diddly-Squat.

So, in an effort to help others learn from my experience, I can at least tell you everything I learned. Like everyone else I surely do not have all the answers, but maybe this can get you started.

For me I was so worried about people at my job thinking I was about to have a baby or being all up in my business that I did not talk about baby making or maternity leave with people at work. I spent several years listening intently whenever a colleague would talk about her maternity leave experience, but whenever I asked a follow-up question someone either outright asked me if I was trying to have a baby or asked a friend of mine the same question later on. So I soon gave up on that route and went straight to calling HR to find out all I could.

I called HR a good two years before we even started trying to conceive. I was trying to figure out the "optimal time" as a teacher to give birth. (The answer, if you're curious, would be exactly 12 weeks before the school year ends, since that's how long the Family Medical Leave Act gives for time off work.) While on the phone with several different people from HR I also tried to get their help in making sense of what seemed (and in retrospect still seems) like a complicated maternity leave policy.

Here's my school system's maternity leave policy in a nutshell:

If a woman gives birth during the school year, depending on how she gives birth she gets either 2 weeks or 4 weeks of paid time off (aka Short Term Disability). If she gives birth during the summer she gets no paid time off, but she can take 12 weeks of time off in the fall under the Family Medical Leave Act and receive paid time off provided she uses her own leave.

My school system also publishes this (difficult-to-find) document on its HR website titled "Your Pregnancy and Taking a Leave of Absence" (scroll down to the Disability and Leaves section of this link). It answers many, but not all, of my maternity leave questions. 

Here's the long form of that information:
But first, a reminder why any of this matters to begin with...spending time with this sleeping beauty.

...who is increasingly alert during the day!

Part 1: Starting from the day a woman gives birth she goes into a 4-week "elimination period." This horribly titled time period is a 20-work-day window in which she must use her own sick leave (if she has any) and get paid for her 20 days off, or if she does not have sick leave she goes on leave-without-pay status.

Part 2: After the 20-day elimination period the woman goes on Short Term Disability (that comes with the horrible acronym STD...I know because I was just asked to write this on a form). The short-term disability period is 2 weeks if she had a vaginal delivery or 4 weeks for a c-section. Because I had a c-section I won the short-term disability lottery -- holler! This 2 or 4-week period is the time during which the woman receives 100% of her salary whether or not she has leave acrued (and she doesn't use her own leave during this time).

Part 3: By the time a woman has completed what I've called Part 2 of her maternity leave, she has either been out of work for 6 weeks (vaginal delivery) or 8 weeks (c-section). Now she is entitled to either 6 more weeks of leave under FMLA (vaginal delivery) or 4 more weeks of leave (c-section). She can take her leave with or without pay depending on whether or not she has sick leave left over.

Part 4: When the 12-week FMLA period is over a woman may continue to take time off work by filing for a Leave of Absence. In our school system we are allowed to take up to two years off at a time and still retain our job. (Note that this does not mean a woman gets her exact same job held for two years. Instead, she is guaranteed a similar position in the county when she returns, though that position could be at another work location [i.e. school].)

So, when I lay it out for you this way, hopefully this does not seem overly complicated. With me so far? Good.

But then it's time to to understand the difference between Short Term Disability and Family Medical Leave Act.

The FMLA time covers 12 weeks' worth of working days. As teachers we get a generous amount of time off work, such as winter break, spring break, and the majority of federal holidays (though we don't get Veteran's Day, and I'm still not sure why...). So as teachers FMLA gives us exactly 60 work days off. This means that if I had, for example, given birth on Dec. 23 when winter break began my FMLA would not have begun until Jan. 3 when the students reported back to school.

But here's the kicker: Short Term Disability counts calendar days, not working days. Think of Short Term Disability like a stopwatch that starts ticking the moment your baby enters the world. So, had I given birth on Dec. 23 and had a vaginal delivery I would have used up the majority of my Short Term Disability days by virtue of giving birth vaginally over a break. If I had given birth in the middle of the summer, such as some time in July, I would not have gotten any Short Term Disability days. Thankfully Natalie decided to hold off until after the holidays were over.

So, ironically then, as teachers it's to our financial advantage to avoid giving birth during breaks from school because by doing so we lose our 2 or 4 paid weeks of maternity leave (aka Short Term Disability). Avoid giving birth in the summer if you want paid time off! Lesson learned.

Then it's time to fill out the paper work. Here's what I learned:

1) Because I needed to use my own sick days for my 20-day elimination period, before I left work I filled out 4 weeks' worth of blank time sheets for my secretary. I left them with her so that she can fill in the dates and submit them for me while I'm gone.

2) Our school system uses Liberty Mutual (1-800-524-0740) as the neutral third-party to handle disability claims. I had been instructed to call Liberty Mutual to begin my claim process at least 30 days before my due date. So I called 35 days before my due date. When I called the woman I spoke to said I was calling too soon. I said I was calling at least 30 days before my due date. She only agreed to work with me because my last day of work was the day winter break began, so when I spoke to her I was less than 30 days from my last day of work. I guess if I had been planning to work up until my due date I would have had to have called back later. Seems odd all around -- if you want women to call exactly 30 days before their due date then you need to state that directly. Liberty Mutual sent me a Medical Release form for my doctor's office that authorized Liberty Mutual to access my medical information from my doctor as needed to handle my disability claim. (Again, interestingly enough, when I contacted Liberty Mutual to initiate my claim the woman I spoke to asked me if I had submitted my Medical Release form. I said I did not yet have a Medical Release form because I thought that's what she would be sending me today. It felt like a game of Who's on First?)

3) I needed to call Liberty Mutual when Natalie was born informing them of the birthday and method of delivery. They beat me to it, though, and called me multiple times during the 10-day waiting period between Natalie's due date and her birthday. I did call them from the hospital, though, the day after her birth and let them know I had a c-section.

4) After Liberty Mutual filed my Short Term Disability claim with my school system I received a letter in the mail from Liberty Mutual telling me they had initiated my claim.

5) Last week, three weeks after Natalie's birth, I received a call from my school system's Disabilities Office. They wanted to know when I intend to return to work, and the answer is not for the remainder of this school year. They needed me to fill out two forms:

Form 1: an FMLA form A. This form requires my principal's signature. I knew I needed to get this form filled out, I just wasn't sure when. It requires including Natalie's birthday as the Beginning Date of Absence. I should have filled it out prior to leaving work in December and just left the dates blank (and trusted that my principal would trust me to fill it out appropriately). The top of this form says I need to fill out the Certification of Health Care Provider form along with this form, but that is just a trick! I don't need that form after all. Complicated, right?

Form 2: Request for Leave of Absence form. Because my FMLA time off ends April 13 and I plan to take the remainder of the school year off, my leave of absence officially begins April 16. Even though the top of this form indicates that I need to submit this form by March 31 to take time off for the upcoming school year, I can disregard that instruction as well and simply return this form to HR for this school year asap.

Believe it or not, although this may sound complicated, handling my maternity leave questions has actually been much easier than handling my state teaching license questions from back in my first year of teaching.

I hope when you take maternity leave that you have a good benefits system in place wherever you work, and I hope if you work for the same school system as I do you'll be able to use this knowledge to your advantage!


  1. I work for the same school system and can't tell you how frustrated I was trying to figure all of that information out. I had a summer birth, so I missed out on any disability time and ended up using up all of my sick leave and taking an additional LOA for several weeks. I wish someone had laid it all out for me like this post! :) Congratulations on your precious daughter!

  2. I think you and I work for the same school system and this IS super helpful. Thanks :)

  3. HOLY WOW is that complicated! I am a teacher and mine was mercifully quite easy. We get 6 weeks off for vaginal birth, 8 weeks for a c-section. We have to use up all of our sick/personal time, and whatever is left is covered by Sick Bank. We don't have STD. I got 9 weeks off with #1 because of my c/s and my OB wrote me out for breastfeeding issues, so I got 9 weeks paid. For #2, I had her by repeat c/s (failed VBAC) exactly 7 weeks before the end of school. That wasn't even on purpose, we got lucky! Both times I had to submit a letter of intent for leave to my superintendent and the Sick Bank chair.

    I guess what I am trying to say is that reading all that you had to go through makes me feel incredibly blessed by my district!

  4. When you decided to take the rest of the school year off, do you get paid again for the summer?

    1. Well, in a word, no, you don't get paid for the summer technically, but because my school district puts aside a portion of each paycheck into a summer fund, you do get your summer fund check. This summer fund check is not for new work done but rather it's just deferred payment for work already done. (Consequently, this is the last year my district is using the summer fund model.) I got lucky, though, because FMLA counts as time worked since you're still getting a paycheck, so I'm viewed as having worked the majority of the year even though I worked less than half of it.