Understanding Maternity Leave Laws (What Are Your Rights?)

When you're pregnant, what are your rights concerning at work? How much, if any, maternity leave are you allowed? Will your job be protected while you're gone? In this article, we'll give you an overview of

  • The Pregnancy Discrimination Act
  • The Family Medical Leave Act
  • State laws and company policies
Woman in office learning about maternity leave

It wasn't so long ago that there were no laws to protect pregnant women on the job. If an employer didn't want a pregnant woman at work, he or she could fire her. If a woman wanted to come back to work after delivering her child, there was no guarantee the job would still be there for her.

Today, things have changed for the better, and there are a number of federal and state laws that will protect you during your pregnancy.

But unfortunately, discrimination against pregnant workers still exists. If you don't know what the law is, it certainly is possible that you can miss out on rights that are legally yours. The two most notable laws protecting pregnant women are the Pregnancy Discrimination Act and the Family and Medical Leave Act.

The Pregnancy Discrimination Act

Pregnancy Discrimination Act

The Pregnancy Discrimination Act, which was passed in 1978, gives pregnant women the same rights as others with "medical conditions" by prohibiting job discrimination. This law, which applies to companies employing 15 or more people, says

  • Your employer cannot fire you because you are pregnant.
  • Your employer cannot force you to take mandatory maternity leave.
  • You must be granted the same health, disability and sickness-leave benefits as any other employee who has a medical condition.
  • You must be given modified tasks, alternate assignments, disability leave or leave without pay (depending on company policy).
  • You are allowed to work as long as you can perform your job.
  • You are guaranteed job security during your leave.
  • During your leave, you continue to accrue seniority and remain eligible for pay increases and benefits.

This is a discrimination law that protects you from being treated differently than other employees. On the one hand, this is good, but it also means that if your company doesn't provide job security or benefits to other employees, it doesn't have to provide them to you.

The Family and Medical Leave Act 

Hey Dad! The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) applies to you, too. If you have worked at your present company for at least a year, you are entitled by this federal law to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid maternity leave. Ask someone in your personnel department for the details!

The Family and Medical Leave Act, which was passed in 1993, applies to companies that employ 50 or more people within a 75-mile radius of the workplace. It says that if you have been employed for at least one year by the company you now work for, and work at least 25 hours a week, you can take up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave in any 12-month period for the birth of your baby.

All 12 weeks of maternity leave can be taken at the same time or they can be broken up over the course of the year before or after the birth of your baby.

Under this law, you must be restored to an equivalent position with equal benefits when you return. (A loophole in this law says this doesn't apply to employees in the top 10 percent compensation bracket.) You can find more detailed information at the FMLA website.

State Laws and Company Policies

Federal laws set the minimum on what you must be allowed if you work for a middle- to large-sized company. But your state laws or company policies might offer even more.

For example, some states provide disability insurance if you have to leave work because of pregnancy or birth. Some companies offer paid maternity leaves.

It's up to you to find out what you're entitled to. Consult the personnel director of your company's human resources department about company policy. And contact your state labor office for state laws regarding pregnancy.

The laws regarding work and pregnancy have been written in response to a strong need for fairness. When you ask for a maternity leave, you are not asking for anything that you are not entitled to. So don't hesitate to take advantage of the laws that women before you have fought long and hard to enact.

For more details on planning your maternity leave and what laws are out there to protect you, check out Managing Your Maternity Leave.