By Lauren Beam (’07), Associate Director for Mentoring and Alumni Personal & Career Development, Wake Forest University

As you are currently reading this, I am likely already out on parental leave after the birth of my third child. Surely navigating three separate occasions of taking work leave to care for my family qualifies me as an expert on this topic! Every company and organization has their own policies around Woman in half business/work clothes and half in casual clothes holding a babytaking work leave for circumstances such as having a baby or adopting a child (parental/maternity/paternity leave), family and medical leave (to care for yourself or others), or short-term disability leave, to name a few. While you should certainly research and understand what benefits are available to you, below are a few questions to ask your Human Resources department before taking any type of work leave.

Here is my situation. What type of leave does that qualify me to take?

As I mentioned above, every company has their own policies or categories for various types of work leave. Depending on your situation (adopting a child, having and recovering from surgery, caring for a family member who is a returning military service member, etc.) and years of service to the organization, ask your HR representative to specifically outline which type of leave you should be applying to take and what benefits you will receive as a part of that leave package. You can also find this information in your company’s HR employee benefits handbook and/or on the HR website.

I was recently talking to a married couple who had a new baby. The husband was told by multiple co-workers that the company offered a month of paid paternity leave for new fathers. He assumed throughout his wife’s pregnancy that he’d fill out a few forms and take his leave soon after the baby was born. A few weeks before the child’s birth, he reached out to HR only to realize that since he had been with the company for less than one year, he actually did NOT qualify for the paid paternity leave. Lesson learned: start your research early, gather information, and know what benefits you are qualified to use! And, don’t assume that your colleagues know the most up-to-date info regarding your company’s leave policies.

Will my leave be paid or unpaid (based on my current job role, hours worked, and years of service)?

For some companies, you must be in a full-time job role and have worked with the organization for X number of years in order to receive paid leave (refer to the example above!). Or, you may have part of your leave time paid and the rest will be unpaid.  For example, some organizations will offer paid maternity leave, but only for a specific amount of time (i.e. 4-6 weeks of paid leave). However, under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), companies are required to protect your job (if you qualify for FMLA) and allow you to take leave for 12 weeks for a significant family or medical situation. Determine if you will need to supplement part of your leave time with your paid time off (PTO) and/or vacation/sick days – or, if you will need to go unpaid for the remainder of your leave.

If I have to use my PTO/vacation/sick time, how much will I be able to use? And how much will be reserved for me when I return to work?

Ask if you are required to use your PTO/vacation/sick days in order to receive pay during your leave period, and if so, how many days will you be required to use. Some companies may expect that you use your entire PTO balance, while others may require that you save 5-10 days for when you return to work. Getting this information on the front end will ensure that you know how long you will be receiving a paycheck during your leave time, and have a clear understanding of how many PTO/vacation days you will have when you return.

Will I still maintain my other benefits while on leave, such as health, disability, or life insurance? If so and my leave is unpaid, how will the company handle the payments towards these benefits?

Let’s say you pay $150/month out of your paycheck towards your health insurance plan, but are taking a month of unpaid work leave. Ask your HR representative what will need to happen to ensure your health coverage stays active. For example, the company may retroactively take the $150 out of next month’s paycheck (actually it would be $300 to cover the previous and current month payments), or you may be required to pay the premium to your company during that month out-of-pocket. Additionally, if you designate a certain percentage of your salary to a retirement fund (and perhaps your company matches that amount), ask how that will be handled.

Obviously, there are many more questions than the ones I have included here that you will need to ask your HR department regarding an upcoming work leave based on your individual situation. However, I will leave you with a few final tips that I have learned from personal experience when planning to take leave:

  • Give yourself at least a month to get all of your HR forms filled out and signed (if you are able) – depending on the type of leave you are taking, you will need signatures from your doctor(s), direct manager/supervisor, and your department head. Your company may also require some form of medical documentation related to your reason for taking family/medical leave.
  • Copy your manager/supervisor on all email communications with HR. Keep your manager in the loop regarding what you are being told by HR regarding your dates of leave, pay information, etc.
  • Communicate with your team or colleagues about your work leave and the dates in which you will be away from the office. Determine what gaps will need to be filled in your absence with regards to your work responsibilities, projects, duties, and other deadlines. Collaborate with your colleagues (and get your manager’s support) to make a “Leave Plan” for who will be covering your responsibilities while you are away.
  • While you are on work leave, you need to actually LEAVE WORK BEHIND! Particularly if you are having a new baby or adopting a child, for example, you will need that precious time to recover and adjust (physically, emotionally, mentally) and to bond with your new family member. Set clear boundaries that you will not be checking e-mail, voicemail, or other messages related to work during that time. And stick to it! Your leave time is not a “vacation” (trust me on this one), but a benefit you have earned through your company for a significant life event. It’s okay to go off the grid for three months and allow your manager and colleagues to figure things out without you. The world, or in this case, your company or team, will keep on spinning!