How Does Maternity Leave Work?

On the one hand, parents-to-be in California are luckier than counterparts in many states that they have several programs to choose from in piecing together a leave, and can get paid for some of it. On the other hand, it can be extremely confusing to figure out which programs you're eligible for, what their benefits are and how they all add up – for time off, either paid or unpaid, and job protection.


Enter Lauren Wallenstein, a former California corporate benefits specialist who found herself helping friends figure out their maternity leaves at mommy-and-me classes after the birth of her own son.


Seeing the need, three years ago Wallenstein started Milk Your Benefits, through which she consults, often by phone, with clients throughout California on how to maximize their maternity and paternity leave benefits.


She recently spoke with Bay Area Parent.


For more information on Wallenstein, visit You can also find helpful information from the state Economic Development Department ( and the Department of Fair Employment and Housing ( and, on California Paid Family Leave, at the California Work & Family Coalition's website (


Why is planning a leave so confusing to people?

The good news is that California has a lot of wonderful benefits. The bad news is that most people don't know how to take advantage of them. Most employers don't know how to explain them so that everything is understood and utilized correctly. …  When the economy started heading south, a lot of employers facing layoffs got rid of HR (human resources) personnel and, in other cases, hired outsourcing companies. A lot of these companies do not reside in California and do not understand California benefits.


California has two different leave income sources, provided that you pay into them: SDI (State Disability Insurance) and PFL (Paid Family Leave). But they don't necessarily apply to everyone, and how much you can cash out depends on how long you've paid into a plan… Certain leaves have crossover and others don't.


When should women talk to their employer about being pregnant?

I always advise … when there's a pressing medical need or when they begin to show. My clients start working on the nuts and bolts of their leave at the start of the third trimester. You have a better understanding of what's available through your company, and you better understand what is going on with your pregnancy.


Why are women hesitant to take the maximum leave?

It's a tricky subject. Employees work in a specific environment and culture in a company. If the person before you did not exhaust their leave and the person after you doesn't plan to, you may think twice about it because you don't want to rock the boat or lose your job.&pagebreaking&I teach my clients how to maximize both their time away from work and their income while on leave, but we do touch on the social environment of the company. I want my clients to try to be a force for change. I want them to start precedents that are positive for the next person.


What about dads?

Dads have it a little bit harder because they're not physically disabled (by childbirth). When they take a leave, it can be viewed by co-workers and employers as kind of indulgent, sad as that is. That perception problem is something we have to manage.


Janine DeFao is an associate editor at Bay Area Parent.

ABCs of Maternity Leave


FMLA: Federal Family Medical Leave Act: Provides up to 12 weeks off, unpaid, to care for a newborn or other relative.


PFL: California Paid Family Leave: The first program of its kind in the nation allows workers to receive up to 55 percent of weekly wages for up to six weeks to bond with a newborn, adopted or foster child or to care for an ill family member. Funded through private sector employees' contributions to the state disability system.


California Pregnancy Disability Leave/SDI: State Disability Insurance typically pays partial salary for up to four weeks before delivery for a normal pregnancy and up to six weeks after birth (eight weeks for Cesarean delivery). Requires doctor's consent.


CFRA: California Family Rights Act:  Provides up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave and job protection for the birth of a child or caring for a seriously ill child, spouse or parent.