If you’re currently pregnant or plan to become pregnant in the future, navigating parental leave can be daunting. It’s one of those things that you don’t necessarily think about until you need it, but it’s important to learn about your rights, what benefits are available to you through your employer and ways that you may be able to maximize your leave through advanced planning.

Why parental leave is important

Contrary to historical opinion, maternity leave is not just a women’s issue. Parental leave benefits the entire family unit, as well as employers.

“The United States is one of the only developed countries that doesn’t guarantee paid family and medical leave,” says Brandi Parrish Ellison, director of policy and government relations for the Women’s Rights and Empowerment Network (WREN). “And because of that, an estimated 25 percent of U.S. mothers return to work within two weeks after giving birth.” 

Providing time for parents to heal from childbirth and bond with their new baby can reduce the risk of adverse health effects for moms and children. Research indicates that paid parental leave lowers the infant mortality rate, increases the likelihood a child will be vaccinated and increases the rate and duration of breastfeeding. It is also proven to help lower the rates of postpartum depression.

From an employer perspective, the potential benefits can far outweigh the additional costs. 

“It’s no secret that we have a workforce shortage in South Carolina,” says Ellison. “Parental leave benefits can help attract and retain talent.” 

Additionally, companies that offer paid parental leave have reported positive impacts on morale, increased productivity and, as a result, increased profits.

“The benefits are undeniable,” says Ellison. “And while there currently isn’t any pending legislation at the state or federal level, there are organizations such as A Better Balance that are actively working to advance paid leave in the United States.”

In the meantime, Ellison encourages South Carolina residents to get involved in advocating for policy changes by contacting their state representatives or through conversations with their employers.

“When you’re advocating for yourself, you are also advocating for others,” she says. 

Know your rights

In South Carolina, there are no state-mandated regulations regarding parental leave, which means federal law applies. Although paid leave is not guaranteed, most employers are required by law to offer unpaid leave through the Family Medical Leave Act.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, FMLA entitles eligible employees of covered employers to take unpaid, job-protected leave for specified family and medical reasons with continuation of group health insurance under the same terms and conditions as if the employee had not taken leave. Only employers with 50 or more employees within a 75-mile radius of the work site are required to abide by the law. 

Qualifying reasons include the birth of a child; to care for the newborn child within one year of birth; the placement of a child for adoption or foster care; and to care for the newly placed child within one year of placement.

FMLA also covers time off for any serious health condition that renders the employee unable to perform essential functions of his or her job, such as physician-ordered bed rest during pregnancy. However, there are caveats that parents should be aware of under the law. The most important being that the leave is unpaid, so many families cannot afford it. 

Under FMLA, employees are able to take a maximum of 12 weeks of leave, consecutive or nonconsecutive, in a 12-month period. So, if a condition during your pregnancy causes you to take time off before the birth of your child, it reduces the time you are able to take once your baby is born.

Additionally, to be eligible for FMLA leave, employees must have been employed for 12 months and must have worked at least 1,250 hours during the 12 months prior to the start of leave.

Those not covered by FMLA include the employees of a small business, those who recently started a new job, people who work part time or work in certain industries such as food and beverage or hospitality.

Although it does not afford parental leave, WREN recently helped lobby for the passage of South Carolina Pregnancy Accommodations Act, which was signed into law by Gov. Henry McMaster in 2018. The law requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to employees and applicants for medical needs arising from pregnancy, childbirth or related medical conditions.

It also makes it unlawful for employers to discriminate or harass a woman because of pregnancy, childbirth or a medical condition related to pregnancy or childbirth. In short, the PAA ensures that pregnant women are afforded the same rights and protections as any other temporarily disabled employee. 

Beyond these regulations, the burden falls on South Carolina employers to decide if they’ll offer paid or unpaid parental leave, and for what duration. Because there is no standard, there are no statistics regarding the average amount of parental leave South Carolina parents receive. 

Nationally, a recent study by the Society for Human Resource Management found that 60 percent of employers give 12 weeks of maternity leave and roughly 33 percent give more than 12 weeks. However, that includes paid and unpaid leave. 

According to the same study, only 58 percent of companies pay a salary or wage during some or all of maternity leave. Although it’s one of the best benchmarks that we have, the study likely only tells us part of the big picture because it was based on survey results voluntarily submitted by human resource professionals.

Serious business lady sitting on a couch with her child

Although paid leave is not guaranteed, most employers are required by law to offer unpaid leave through the Family Medical Leave Act. Dreamstime

How to maximize your leave

Understanding your legal rights is the first step to planning your maternity leave. To maximize your leave, however, it’s important to research what other options may be available to you. 

Erin Curran of Mount Pleasant was able to take 15 weeks of maternity leave following the birth of her son. However, as a federal employee, her only options included utilizing the FMLA along with any annual and sick leave she had accrued.

“Knowing that my husband and I wanted to start a family someday, I was very vigilant about using my leave, which meant rethinking vacations or taking time off for my own personal health,” says Curran. “Even before I got pregnant, in the back of my mind I knew that any day that I took off meant one less day that I’d be able to spend with my future newborn.”

Curran worked with her human resources representative to map out her leave. She was fortunate in the fact that she is able to roll over her accrued leave year to year without any maximum cap on the number of hours. But one consideration that she did not anticipate was how taking maternity leave would affect her health insurance coverage.

“After 30 days of consecutive leave without pay, I would’ve had to pay my full health insurance premium,” says Curran. “So, considering you already aren’t getting paid, that’s something that can really put families in a financial bind especially when you consider medical bills and the expenses that already come with caring for an infant.”

Fortunately, in her case, any unpaid leave under FMLA did not start until after she exhausted all of the paid leave she had saved up, which is how she was able to extend her leave to 15 weeks: 12 weeks of paid leave followed by 3 weeks unpaid. For many women, these are required to be used concurrently starting from the day that you are admitted to the hospital to deliver. 

Now that their son is 2 years old, Curran has already started thinking about what her maternity leave will look like when they decide to grow their family. 

“I don’t have the leave saved up like I did with my son, partly because I haven’t had time for it to build back up but also because I’ve had to dip into my paid time off when he’s been sick or I’ve had to take him to a doctor’s appointment,” she says. “I’ve been looking into private short-term disability policies since the federal government doesn’t offer it, but so far I haven’t had any luck.”

Since parental leave benefits largely depend on the employer, in some cases, a father may have better benefits than the mother who is giving birth. 

Mary Holland of Hanahan is a mom to three children ranging from 2 to 7 years old.

“Even though I worked full time for a medical billing firm in Mount Pleasant, the company didn’t offer benefits of any kind,” says Holland. “With each pregnancy, I was offered up to three months of unpaid maternity leave with a guarantee of a job upon my return, but my employer made it apparent they preferred I take less.” 

At the time, Holland’s husband worked for Apple and was given six weeks of paid parental leave that could have been take all at once or as needed. 

In the years following the birth of her children, Holland’s company did allow her to work from home for a few years, but ultimately, she made the decision to be a stay-at-home mom. 

Although it wasn’t the case for these two local moms, some companies offer short-term disability coverage that pays all or a portion of an employee’s salary for a certain number of weeks due to a medical-related absence such as childbirth. Under most policies, this benefit is usually limited to six weeks for a vaginal delivery or eight weeks for a Cesarean, unless your physician notes additional time is medically necessary.  

Private short-term disability plans may be available through an independent insurance agent or broker; however, the cost of out-of-pocket premiums may not be worth the benefit. If you’re pregnant or planning to become pregnant, a better option could be contributing to a designated savings account to cover your living expenses during your maternity leave. 

Start planning now

It’s up to you when you decide to share your pregnancy with your employer, but keep in mind that FMLA requires employees to provide 30 days notice when the leave is foreseeable, such as the case with childbirth. Failure to do so with no reasonable excuse may result in denial of coverage until 30 days after notice is provided.

Even if you aren’t currently pregnant or aren’t ready to share that you are pregnant, you can still ask your employer questions about company policies such as how much leave you can take for the birth or adoption of a child, whether it will it be paid or unpaid and what happens to your benefits while you’re on leave. 

The more answers you gather now, the better you can prepare and enjoy those fleeting newborn days while you’re on leave.