Experts: How To Plan for Parental Leave if Your Company Does Not Offer It

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Despite more than 100 years of activism calling for paid parental leave, millions of parents in the United States still have to choose between having children and earning a living. According to the World Policy Center, the U.S. is one of just eight countries on Earth that don’t allow new mothers — and in many cases, fathers — to collect at least a portion of their paychecks while caring for and bonding with their newborns.

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In guaranteeing nothing at all, the wealthiest country in the world joins only Papua New Guinea, Suriname and five tiny Pacific island nations that most people couldn’t point to on a map — Micronesia, the Marshall Islands, Nauru, Palau and Tonga.

Iran gives new parents 26-51.9 weeks of paid leave. In Kazakhstan, Mongolia, Somalia, Colombia and Turkey it’s 14-25.9 weeks. Russia, Canada, Japan, South Korea, Armenia, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and most of Europe give new parents 52 weeks or more.

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The 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) guarantees 12 weeks of family leave, but the leave is unpaid and it applies only to public agencies and companies with more than 50 employees — and days you take off during pregnancy count against your 12 weeks.

If you decide to have children in the United States, you’re mostly on your own — unless you’re one of the lucky 23% of workers who the BLS says has access to paid family leave.

For the other 77%, here’s how you can plan, prepare and try to find a balance between work and life.

Hoard the Paid Days Off You Do Have

In a perfect world, American workers wouldn’t have to choose between taking a day off — even when they’re sick — and having children. But if your boss doesn’t offer paid leave and you’re considering starting a family, that’s the reality you’re facing.

“Saving all available sick and vacation time before the birth is important,” said Melissa Kaekel of Morgan Hill Institute, a resource for counselors and career coaches. “Some companies will allow for banked hours, meaning you work now and defer getting paid until a later date. It can allow you to essentially take a day off without using official sick or vacation hours.”

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If the new parent has a partner, the couple should consider strategically staggering their paid days off to stretch them as far as possible.

Kaekel suggests planning “for both parents to be off during the first week following birth, and then determine the best care routine,” she said. “They may alternate weeks off or have one parent stay home until all leave options are exhausted, and then switch.”

STDI Can Bridge at Least Some of the Financial Gap

Mike Brown, of the disability insurance marketplace Breeze, recently published a study that found three out of four women believe eight weeks of unpaid maternity leave would empty their cash savings. Many more would see their savings reach zero long before two months passed.

However, the right kind of insurance policy could keep their savings mostly intact. 

“If your employer doesn’t offer maternity or paternity leave benefits, one way to prepare your finances for pregnancy and unpaid leave is to take out a short-term disability insurance policy,” said Brown. “Short-term disability insurance replaces up to 60% of your weekly income for a few months or even up to a year when you can’t work due to qualifying disabilities.”

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Brown explained that pregnancy is among the most common qualifying disabilities for short-term disability insurance — but timing is everything.

“While STDI can provide an excellent financial safety net for pregnancy and unpaid leave, there is a catch. A woman must apply for STDI before she is pregnant. Otherwise, the pregnancy will be counted as a pre-existing condition and not trigger benefits.”

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Ask About Remote or Hybrid Options

In the post-pandemic era, you might be able to negotiate to work from home — at least for a while. It’s not exactly parental leave, but it’s the next best thing.

“Check if your company will let you work remotely for a period of time since they don’t offer this crucial life benefit, perhaps with a reduced schedule,” said Theresia Le Battistini, CEO and founder of Fashion League. “Knowing this in advance will help you figure out how to delegate duties at home.”

If your boss doesn’t like the idea, consider looking for one who might.

“Many parents have started looking for job opportunities that involve telework and working remotely,” said Jenn Farmer of IEPMommy. “This makes it easier to have gainful employment while still being able to be present for their families. Many companies have started to be more open to teleworking and remote work since the pandemic. It’s a win-win for the companies because they are able to find employees who are eager to work without the necessity of going into the office or living in the same city as the office.”

A Short Conversation Could Go a Long Way

If you have a good relationship with your boss, a frank and honest discussion could convince your employer to work with you — and even to change the company’s benefits policy for those who come after.

“Unfortunately, if your workplace doesn’t offer maternity or paternity benefits, you cannot demand them,” said Adrienne Couch, an HR professional with LLC.Services. “However, you can try and negotiate with your boss. Have a discussion with them, expressing your concern for both your career and personal life. Have a plan before approaching your boss. It is also important to contact HR in advance, let them know about the need for maternity or paternity leave and discuss changes in your job as time goes by. Discuss how much work you can handle shortly before childbirth, and discuss your maternity leave duration.”

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About the Author

Andrew Lisa has been writing professionally since 2001. An award-winning writer, Andrew was formerly one of the youngest nationally distributed columnists for the largest newspaper syndicate in the country, the Gannett News Service. He worked as the business section editor for amNewYork, the most widely distributed newspaper in Manhattan, and worked as a copy editor for TheStreet.com, a financial publication in the heart of Wall Street's investment community in New York City.
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