If you are like me, you found the whole concept of maternity leave, as it relates to your employer, complicated. With my first pregnancy, I wasn’t getting answers from my employer and I was subsequently freaking out, unsure of how I would be paid, how much, and when. Most of this I had to figure out on my own.
To help other women understand what maternity leave is and how it works, I put these tips together. Please comment if I am missing anything. Key thing to note – my experience deals specifically with maternity leave as provided by a short term disability policy. This neither applies to the military nor employees of the federal government, among others. Paid family leave for everyone is an important subject that I will get to in another post.
Defining Different Types of Leave and Leave Statuses
The discussion of maternity leave is complicated because the use of the word leave has several varying meanings. I want to define those upfront:
Paid Leave (Vacation, Sick, and/or Holiday Leave): This is the leave you accrue from your employer by working for your employer. If you are using paid leave, you are in a Paid Status with your employer.
Unpaid Leave: This is a period when you are not paid by your employer. When you are receiving short term disability payments for your maternity leave, you are considered in an Unpaid Status with your employer. This is because your employer isn’t paying you during this time, the insurance company is.
What is confusing about maternity leave is that you navigate between paid and unpaid statuses with your employer. An illustrative scenario follows: You give birth and file your disability claim. The first two weeks following birth you are in your unpaid “elimination period” for your short term disability policy. During this time you decide to use your accrued paid leave to cover the elimination period. Once the elimination period ends, you start receiving short term disability payments. Once your short term disability payments are exhausted, you use your remaining paid leave to stay home until your return to work. During the elimination period you are in a Paid Status with your employer because you are using accrued leave; once you are receiving short term disability payments, you are in an unpaid status with your employer; while you use your paid leave following the end of your short term disability payments you are again back in a Paid Status.
To further complicate things, some employers allow you to use leave while you are receiving short term disability payments. You are essentially being double-payed and I am not sure what pay status applies in this situation.
Enroll in Short Term and Long Term Policies Now
Short term disability is an insurance policy offered by some employers – it typically covers a period of about twelve weeks to three months per claim. If you are of childbearing age, enroll in both your company’s short term and long term disability policies when you start work or during open enrollment. You cannot enroll in short term disability after you become pregnant. Why long term disability, too? Because if you exhaust your short term disability, you roll into long term disability coverage. Here are two scenarios that illustrate why having both policies is important:
(1) You have preeclampsia and are put on bed rest by your doctor when you are seven months pregnant. You file your short term disability claim because you cannot work due to your condition. Let’s say you deliver on your due date two months later. Your short term disability clock starts ticking once you are on bedrest and you already used nine weeks of your policy before birth, so you are limited in what you can use following birth.
(2) You suffer from post partum depression following the birth of your child and are unable to return to work until four months post partum. Your short term benefits are exhausted before you are medically ready to return to work.
I cannot stress how important it is to have both policies.
Understand Your Period of Coverage and Other Nuances
Period of Coverage
Your short term disability policy will have a period of coverage for which you are eligible to receive payments while disabled. Many short term disability policies provide coverage up to twelve weeks. The “up to” is important, because it doesn’t mean you are guaranteed twelve weeks. It just means that is the maximum limit of your short term disability policy. Although you are eligible for twelve weeks as an example, you typically get six weeks of coverage following an uncomplicated vaginal delivery and eight weeks of coverage following a C-section. If you want to stay home longer than that with your baby, you need to financially plan for it. You will either need to use your accrued sick time or leave or take unpaid leave beyond this period.
Disability policies, both short term and long term, have what is called an “elimination period”. This is fancy talk to say a period of time for which they don’t pay you. The elimination period supposedly exists to ensure you have an ailment that qualifies for the short term disability policy. Elimination periods on short term disability policies are typically one to two weeks in duration. Find out what your elimination period is so you can financially plan for it. You will either need to use your accrued sick time or leave or take unpaid leave to cover the elimination period.
The elimination period for long term disability policies is typically the maximum length of the accompanying short term disability policy. Hence, if needed, one rolls into the other to ensure you have consistent coverage.
As an aside, elimination periods make sense for non-maternity uses of short term disability. As an example, I’m walking and twist my ankle and subsequently can’t work because of it. Let’s say my elimination period on my short term disability policy is two weeks. I file a disability claim after I twist my ankle. But my ankle gets better in three days and I am able to return to work. I don’t get any disability payments because my condition resolved itself within the elimination period. Now, let’s change the scenario. It takes me three weeks for my condition to resolve itself before I can return to work. I would get one week of short term disability payments. This is because the elimination period of two weeks is unpaid and the last week is paid. All of this, of course, depends on a medical professional that provides the appropriate paperwork to the insurance company related to your medical condition that makes you unable to work. Then, this is reviewed by medical staff at the insurance company to either approve or decline your claim.
Actual Paid Coverage
I give all this detail to let you know that what you are eligible for and what you get are two very different numbers. Let’s say you deliver vaginally and your policy has a two week elimination period. That essentially means you are being paid under your short term disability policy for four weeks only (six weeks of payments for vaginal delivery minus two week elimination period). Six weeks total for a C-section. It totally sucks, right?
Holidays and Normal Leave Accrual
Some employers will pay you for holidays while on maternity leave, but most will not. Check with your employer to understand what holiday leave you will accrue while on paid leave and unpaid leave. With my employer, you had to be in a paid status (i.e., working or on paid leave) immediately preceding a holiday to accrue that holiday and be paid for it. General rule of thumb is if you are on unpaid leave, you do not accrue the holiday with your employer. Additionally, some employers will not allow you to be double-payed (on paid leave and receiving short term disability payments) for a holiday. Again, check with your employer about how you accrue holidays.
Check with your employer about how you accrue leave in a month. Some employers have rules where if you are in a paid status for half the month, you accrue your total leave for the month regardless. This is employer dependent, and is important for you to be able to plan financially for your maternity leave.
Show Me the Money
Check with your employer if your short and long term disability policies’ premiums are deducted from your salary before or after taxes are applied. Most are applied after tax deductions on your paystub. If your premiums are paid after tax then you subsequently don’t pay income taxes on the short term payments you receive while on maternity leave. This is why many short term disability policies offer you a percentage of your pay (around 60%) rather than 100% pay. Because 60% of your pay is generally close to what you would make in take-home income if you were working.
Check with the insurance company for maximum payment amounts. Many policies have a ceiling on what they will provide per payment. This tends to affect higher-earning individuals (e.g., people earning over $150,000 annual salary).
You are typically paid weekly or bi-weekly with a short term disability policy. Policies vary so be sure to check with the insurance company.
Preparing and Filing the Claim
Contact your short term disability provider BEFORE you give birth. They will take your information and go over how you need to file your claim. It will make things much easier if you do this a few weeks before you deliver.
Give necessary paperwork to your OBGYN or Midwife prior to delivery. They are required by the insurance company to submit medical documentation confirming you are medically disabled.
Once you give birth, file your claim with your short term disability provider. You don’t have to do it immediately, but you should file it within a few days. Your elimination period starts the day you give birth.
Returning to Work
Depending on whether you have a vaginal birth or C-section, you will have a post partum visit with your OBGYN or Midwife. Your insurance company, and most likely your employer, too, will require documentation that you are medically able to return to work.
Extending a Claim
In some cases, such as post partum depression and anxiety, or other medical complications, you will need to stay out of work longer than your policy typically allows. The insurance company will require documentation and an opinion from your medical provider on your medical condition. This will undergo review with the insurance company for approval.
For mental health benefit extensions, I recommend seeking a counselor or therapist specialized in treating ante and post partum mental health issues as they are well-versed in what documentation to provide to the insurance company to extend a claim.
Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA)
Many people find FMLA and short term disability confusing when applied together. The key thing to note is that FMLA protects your job for twelve weeks of leave, assuming you meet the criteria for FMLA (e.g., worked at your employer for at least a year, etc.). FMLA is unpaid in itself. FMLA runs concurrently with your maternity leave, whether you are in Paid Status using your accrued leave or vacation, or in an Unpaid Status either receiving short term disability payments or managing without any form of payment.
I hope this information helps alleviate the anxiety of some mothers out there trying to make sense of their maternity leave policies. If anyone would like to contribute information to maternity leave as it applies outside of short term disability, I welcome the content.