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Before 1993, workers who became parents were subject to the policies and whims of their employers. Requests to stay home on leave with a newborn could be denied for any reason, and if a new parent wanted to take time off, he or she could be fired.
Then, in 1993, Congress passed the landmark Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which created the first guaranteed right of working mothers—and fathers—to stay home with their newborn child. FMLA guarantees 12 weeks of unpaid leave to both mothers and fathers after the birth of a child, adoption of a child or placement of a foster child.
Even though FMLA celebrated its 16th birthday this year, it is still a major source of confusion for expectant parents trying to figure out their rights, responsibilities and options.
According to Marcia McCormick, an associate professor at St. Louis University School of Law and an editor of the Workplace Prof Blog, one of the biggest misconceptions about FMLA is that it is paid leave—it isn't. FMLA only guarantees that your employer holds your position for you for 12 weeks. While some employers offer more generous parental leave plans that include paid time off, they are not legally required to. "If you do have some kind of paid leave—like if you have sick leave or vacation leave—you can opt to substitute some of that paid leave for the unpaid leave," she says. "Or, your employer might require you to use your paid leave as part of your FMLA time period."
Deb Keary, director of human resources at the Society for Human Resource Management, says another misconception about FMLA is that it guarantees you'll get your old job back when you return. "You have to be put back in a job that has the same conditions of employment—which means your salary, your benefits, your hours, if you had flex time, whatever, it all has to be the same. But it doesn't have to be the exact same thing you were doing before you left," she says. "If you're a copy editor and you work on certain publication, you might be assigned to a different publication when you come back."