California’s generous maternity leave benefits sometimes unknown to working parents

For parents of newborns – or those expecting one – congratulations! And start planning.

If you live in California, you’re lucky. To get time off to hang with your kid, you don’t even have to work for Yahoo (whose CEO Marissa Mayer just granted 16 weeks of paid leave for moms and eight weeks for dads).

When Amy Roach, 32, got pregnant, she says her company’s HR director told her she was eligible for 12 weeks of unpaid leave. That wasn’t true. But, it’s an easy mistake to make. Under the federal 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act, workers can take up to 12 weeks off of work to take care of a new baby or sick family member or to recover from an illness.

Roach ended up taking five months off, all paid. She made this happen after turning to expert Lauren Wallenstein.

Wallenstein runs Milk Your Benefits out of her home office in West LA. It’s her job to help expectant parents navigate the confusing world of California leaves of absence laws and regulations.

“My clients usually feel like they’re getting screwed in one way or another and they want to make sure that at the end of the day, they’re not,” said Wallenstein, who started her business in January 2011. “I want people to start pushing back. I want a revolution to start.”

Wallenstein says there is a fundamental conflict of interest between employees and businesses because businesses want their employees to come back to work quickly. But experts say the issue isn’t that simple, even for those whose job it is to understand all the laws and regulations.

“The confusion for HR reps is that there are a number of laws and regulations,” said Jay Sherman, Vice President of Human Resources at Life Care insurance company in Woodland Hills. “There’s pregnancy disability leave, family care and medical leave and paid family leave. There’s also coordination of pay in terms of sick pay vacation pay and pay from the Employment Development Department. All of these leaves and pay issues as well as group health benefits have to be coordinated. They all fit together. It’s a puzzle. There are a lot of pieces to the puzzle. They all fit together and knowing what each piece looks like and how they fit together is very difficult for a small company that has a small HR staff where the HR staff is involved in many many things in addition to leaves of absence.”

When those puzzle pieces aren’t explained to expecting parents, Wallenstein says they get scared.

“They are scared of taking a long maternity leave,” Wallenstein said. “They’re scared of losing their health insurance. They’re scared of how their relationships might change with their co-workers and their bosses, how their job future might be impacted by this. It’s not as simple as ‘Oh, I’m having a baby and I’ll be back soon.’ It’s a complicated issue.”

But, with the correct information, HR expert Sherman says that the pregnancy disability leave and family care leave in California make up the best and most generous system in this country.

“In a company with 50 or more employees, a woman can take up to seven months off work,” Sherman said. “She gets her health benefits in place, subsidized to the same degree as if she were working and gets to come back to her same job. Fathers in California can take up to six weeks of Paid Family Leave. ... This is where somebody wants to be if they’re going to have a child and they work.”

Add to the plate a new regulation under Obamacare about pumping at work: An employer with more than 50 employees has to provide a private space to nursing mothers to pump breastmilk during the workday. Bathrooms don’t count. California has actually had similar laws on the books for years. A fact that mother Amy Roach says helped ease her transition back to work.

“I think it benefits women and companies in the long run when you’re allowing significant amount of time off,” Roach said. “‘Cause when I came back, I was ready to come back.”

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Lauren M. Whaley

Freelance journalist Lauren M. Whaley is a photographer, radio producer and print reporter specializing in topics related to mental illness, reproductive health care and health disparities. She is also a childbirth photographer.This year, She is working on a series about how low-income parents access care for perinatal mental illnesses. The project is funded in part by the Rosalynn Carter Fellowships for Mental Health Journalism.She was a 2016-17 Knight Science Journalism Fellow at the Massachusetts Institute for Technology.Her work has been recognized by the Association of Health Care Journalists, the Scripps Howard Foundation and the Public Radio Exchange (PRX) STEM story project. She has contributed radio, video, photography and written stories to KQED Public Radio, Southern California Public Radio, the San Jose Mercury News, the New York Times and other media outlets. For six years, she worked as the Center for Health Reporting's multimedia journalist. She is a past president of the national organizationJournalism and Women Symposium (JAWS) and spent her early 20s leading canoe expeditions for young women, including a solo-led 45-trip in the Canadian Arctic. She is based in Los Angeles.

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