Elizabeth Knox Online

I’m beginning a Working-Mom Series for "new moms." It would seem there's no better way to start it off than with a post about What To Do Before You Get Pregnant

November is an important month. Not only is it Movember, it also kicks off open-enrollment season at most companies/organizations. This is the one time each year that you can elect to change your benefits (without another life-event happening). One of the most important things you can do as a working-mom, even before you get pregnant, is to sign up for short-term disability insurance.*

Everyone will tell you that having a baby changes your life. You have no way of knowing how true that is until you are on the other side of it. Each family is different, so the baby will change your life in different ways, but one undeniable way that a baby will change your life is that it will require time. Lots and lots of time. 

It is really hard to do anything else, particularly during the first few days/weeks/months. If you work outside the home, you’ll see there’s a conflict – you need time to work (because you like your job, you have a commitment, and your job pays the bills), and you need time to spend with your baby (because they need so much care). How do you figure that out?

The Family and Medical Leave Act has made it possible for “eligible employees of covered employers to take unpaid, job-protected leave for specified family and medical reasons with continuation of group health insurance coverage under the same terms and conditions as if the employee had not taken leave.” (See the link for more details).

But notice the key terms: “eligible employees” “job-protected” “continuation of health insurance” 

If you are eligible, your job is protected (they can’t fire you), and you can continue your health insurance. Notice, it doesn’t say anything about being paid.

But even a few weeks without a paycheck can wreck havoc on a family’s budget.

Yes, the historical, cultural ideal is that children are born into a loving family with two parents, and ideally those parents should have “planned better” and been able to live on one parent’s income so the other parent can stay home full time with the child.

Those ideals are a broad brush over incredibly complicated and personal decisions. And we’ll get into a few of them throughout this series, but let’s look at the facts: according to a US Census Bureau report: 36% of all births in 2011 were to unmarried mothers. 

Families come in all different shapes and sizes. For parents and babies to have a better shot at a good start, it would be really helpful to have some time together, without immediately worrying about the bills. There are all sorts of arguments about how paid maternity leave is good for companies and organizations (healthier moms and babies, better retention, etc), but article after study after report tells the story of US maternity leave policies. In short:

"The United States is the only developed country in the world without paid maternity leave."
-- Barack Obama, June 23, 2014 in an op-ed for Huffington Post: Family Friendly Workplace Policies Are Not Frills -- They're Basic Needs

Women & Tech's Maternity Leave Infographic

Women & Tech's Maternity Leave Infographic

The reality is that only 11 percent of all private industry workers have access to paid family leave (16 percent of state and local government employees have access to some paid family leave; federal workers don’t get any, though all employees may be able to use accrued sick leave), according to this NYTimes article which cites the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

So what is a new mom to do? Sign up for Short Term Disability Insurance (STD for short – unfortunate acronym).

STD is far from a cure-all. It takes a few weeks to kick in (depending on your policy), it usually doesn't usually cover the full 12 weeks of FMLA (because you aren't considered to be 'disabled' that long unless you had a complicated delivery, and who wants that just to be eligible for more coverage?)

STD is not an ideal solution for paid maternity leave, but at the moment, it's all their is (except in California, Rhode Island, and New Jersey**). So try to take advantage of it. You'll likely use some combination of vacation time, sick time, short-term disability, and unpaid leave. The STD can help bridge the gap. 

My Story:
I didn't pay attention to short-term disability insurance. While many people say you should have it in general, as a healthy young woman, I hadn’t enrolled when I joined my company. I tried to enroll in STD in a November like this a few years ago but unlike my previous two employers where "open enrollment" meant "open enrollment" [you could enroll in any coverage you hadn't had before] my employer at the time's STD policy required you to medically qualify. I filled out the forms, honestly recording the minor health problems I'd had in the last 7 years (which was the time-frame) and how they'd been resolved. After 11 long months of back-and-forth with my company and their insurance provider (“lost” applications, several rounds of forms for my doctors to complete, etc.) they denied my application. Long, long, long story short, I felt it was an unfair denial. I tried to fight with them, but by then I was pregnant, and pregnant women are supposed to watch their blood pressure and man, was that fight doing a number on me. 

I have now finished my second completely unpaid maternity leave. We’ve made it work. But it sure would have been nice to have some sort of paycheck coming in during that time.

So please - take a lesson from me, either sign up for Short Term Disability insurance when you first take a new job (be sure to read your company's policies clearly), or - if you can - do it during this open enrollment season - before you get pregnant. 

“When hardworking Americans are forced to choose between work and family, America lags behind in a global economy.  To stay competitive and economically successful, America needs to bring our workplace policies into the 21st century.”

-- Barack Obama – June 21, 2014 - Weekly Address: Bringing our Workplace Policies into the 21st Century

* the reason it’s important to sign up before you get pregnant is because pregnancy is considered a pre-existing condition and you can not qualify for STD if you are already pregnant

** check into your state’s Medical Leave policies, you might find a surprise (good or bad). For instance, DC allows 16 weeks of FMLA after date of release from your doctor (which is usually 6 weeks after birth) for baby bonding. That means you get approximately 22 weeks (6 weeks + 16 weeks) of job protection. I used the ‘additional time’ when Everett was born to test out working part time (I returned when he was 15 weeks old, and used the remaining FMLA a few days a week to work part-time while still having the FMLA protection).

 

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