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Congratulations! You're going to become parents!
       Over the next few months, there are so many things to think about. What color will you paint the baby's room? What will Rover think? Must you honor Aunt Hildegard's dying wish that you name your first child after her?
       One of the biggest concerns for today's parents--after delivery of a healthy child--is how the arrival of a new baby will affect work and how work will affect the arrival of the new baby. With more women in the work force than in years past, and with more men taking a larger role in raising their children, both parents have to think about family leave options.
       The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) of 1993 provides some national guidelines for employers. In addition, each state has its own laws--so check with your employer for specific concerns. Contact your state's labor department about family and medical leave laws for your state.

Generally, federal law only covers employers employing 50 or more individuals. However, the specifics of the law are a bit more complicated than that when you take into account on-site and off-site workers, part-time workers, and so on. The law also covers public agencies--such as schools and state, local, and federal employers--even if they have fewer than 50 workers.
       According to information from the Institute for International Research in Arlington, Va., FMLA allows eligible employees, male or female, up to 12 weeks of leave each year for certain reasons, including the birth or adoption of a child, or to care for a child, spouse, or parent who is seriously ill. However, the law doesn't require the leave to be paid. This is no vacation: If you plan to take leave, make sure your resources, including credit union savings, are adequate to make it as financially pain-free as possible.
       Here are some common questions about family leave.

The law does not
require the employer
to pay you for the leave.

I just found out we're going to have a baby. How soon should I tell my employer?
"You should give your employer as much notice as possible," says Pam Lokken of the human resources department at TDS-CS Computing Services in Madison, Wis. Of course, some of this is common courtesy--if you want to stay on your employer's good side, you'll give enough time to prepare for your absence. But federal law also requires a minimum of 30 days' notice.
       In cases where this isn't possible--a premature birth, for example--you must give notice "as soon as practicable" (within a business day or two), and you should be in the clear. But if you fail to notify your employer--and if the need was foreseeable for that amount of time--the law says your employer can delay commencement of your leave by 30 days.

Does maternity leave count against my family leave?
According to the federal law, yes. If your employer grants you maternity leave, your employer simultaneously may count the leave against the 12 weeks of leave you're allowed under FMLA.
       One related point: Your employer can make you use vacation, sick leave, or other accumulated leave before granting you leave under the FMLA.

How can I tell if I am eligible to take family leave?
Under FMLA, you must 1) have been employed for at least 12 months, though not necessarily consecutively; and 2) have worked a minimum of 1,250 hours in the past 12 months. Seasonal or part-time employees, if they work fewer than 1,250 hours per year, are not eligible.
       If you happen to be one of the highest-paid top 10% of the executive employees at your business, the law says you may not be eligible because the leave might "create substantial and grievous injury to the business operations."

Can my spouse and I take family leave at the same time?
The law provides for a combined total of 12 weeks of leave during a one-year period for the birth or adoption of a child. That means the mother could take six weeks and the father could take six weeks.

Can my employer penalize me in any way for taking family leave?
"No, they definitely cannot," says Lokken. Specifically, the FMLA states, "If an employee on leave without pay would otherwise be entitled to full benefits (other than health benefits), the same benefits would be required to be provided to an employee on unpaid FMLA leave. By the same token, employers cannot use the taking of FMLA leave as a negative factor in employment actions, such as hiring, promotions, or disciplinary actions."

Do I have to take the whole 12 weeks at once? Does it have to be the equivalent of full time?
FMLA allows three types of leave:
continuous, reduced-schedule, or intermittent. The reduced-schedule leave allows you to decrease the number of hours worked per day, and the intermittent leave allows leaves for various periods of time for things like doctor's appointments. But the law doesn't require an employer to offer either of these options in the case of birth or adoption. Your own employer may choose to do so, however.

Can I lose my health insurance if I take family leave?
FMLA requires employers to continue an employee's health insurance during the leave just as it was provided before the leave. But if an employee chooses not to return to work after the leave, he or she may owe the employer for the cost of the health premiums paid.

What happens when I return to my job?
Generally speaking, FMLA requires you to be able to return to a position that is "equivalent or comparable" to the one you held before. These items, and others, must be the same or similar: geographic location, pay, benefits, working conditions, status, and responsibility. In short, you can't leave a management position at a hotel chain and return as a dishwasher.
       There are a number of exceptions to this law, however. And being on leave does not protect an employee from situations such as layoffs that would have occurred whether he or she had been on leave or not. Your best bet is to speak directly to your employer to find out where you stand.
You can't leave
a management position
at a hotel chain
and return as a dishwasher.

What happens if my employer violates FMLA?
If your employer breaks the law, the company can be forced to pay back your lost wages and benefits costs plus interest. In addition, there's a 100% penalty for these costs. The employer also may have to pay attorney's fees. In short, it behooves everyone to follow the law.

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