How to Prepare for an Employee's Maternity Leave

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Maternity (or family) leave — for mothers and fathers of newborn or newly adopted children — allows the parents to take time away from work without losing their position or benefits. It’s incredibly important for parents to be home with their children during this early period, but it can leave a gap in the workplace. Understanding how maternity leave works and being prepared for it can make all the difference.

FMLA Basics and Maternity Leave

While the traditional name is maternity leave, the law extends to both parents, making family leave a more representative term. Maternity leave in the United States is governed by the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which requires any company with more than 50 employees to allow 12 weeks of unpaid leave for new parents, annually.

For smaller companies with less than 50 employees, there’s no national law giving maternity leave, although some states have adopted laws which extend FMLA to smaller businesses. FMLA provides protection to new parents, but involves unpaid time off; some company policies can require employees to take their paid leave first (vacation hours, sick time, etc.) before using FMLA unpaid time.

Planning for Family Leave

The first thing to do when an employee is planning to take family leave for a new child is to work with them to develop an out-of-office plan. They’ll have an idea of the timing, and a schedule can be built from that. Even though FMLA provides 12 weeks, many parents can’t afford to take that much time off without pay; barring any complications, teammates can usually estimate how long they’ll be out of the office.

Have the employee create a document with all of their daily and long-term tasks, including any upcoming deadlines that occur during their period of leave. Review the ongoing work with the employee and any other affected managers, and prioritize the tasks. Some low-priority long-term projects won’t suffer if pushed back a month or two, so consider which are absolutely necessary and which can be delayed.

This employee’s critical work will need to be distributed around the rest of the group, team or department, in order to keep those critical tasks moving. The best way to do this is to meet with all teammates who will be affected, explain the situation and discuss the list of tasks to be distributed. Let the team discuss their own workloads and critical deadlines. It’s management’s job to prioritize the department’s work overall, so be sure to clarify with each affected employee what extra tasks they may be picking up, and what work is moving to a lower priority because of that.

Relying on Part-Time Help

It may be necessary to pull in a temporary contractor or part-time employee if workloads are high. If so, it’s important to make that decision as soon as possible, so that there can be plenty of overlap time between the contractor and the parent. You may have the skills you require already in your company’s labor pool, so always check there before hiring new help.

Creating a Smooth Transition

When possible, start moving tasks right away, especially daily or routine ones; this gives the new parent some time and space to get ahead on other projects that can’t be as easily reassigned. Discuss whether the employee will be reachable by phone or email during their leave; while new parents are likely to put boundaries on this access during the unpaid time, many are happy to check emails or reply to emergency phone calls.

Family leave can be disruptive to a department, so it’s a manager’s job to stay positive about the situation. Balancing workloads as best as possible is important, but also make it clear that management understands and is here for support while the department is down an employee. This will make things positive for both the group and the new parent.