Maternity leave is a topic that’s coming under increasing scrutiny in the US. People are pointing to parental leave policies in Europe and other parts of the world and asking why US employers think six weeks (the average maternity leave) is sufficient. But one woman had to deal with something else altogether.
Emily Manley knew that her Iowa employer, a small business, didn’t offer paid maternity leave.
So she took advantage of the Family and Medical Leave Act, which allows for three months of unpaid leave.
But while she was on her maternity leave, enjoying time with her newborn son, Jettson, Manley got a job offer from an old employer. With better benefits, the job was perfect for her. So, she put in her two weeks’ notice.
Then, Manley was stunned to receive something from her current employer: a bill for $3,000.
The company said the bill was for all the medical costs that it covered for her as well as her paid time off — which she was required to take.
“They had a policy that you had to burn through all your PTO prior to taking leave, so you really didn’t have a choice,” said Manley. “You had to take it all before you could start leave.”
The company sent the bill and requested that she pay the entire amount up front.
It would not accept payment installments. For Manley, that was a serious financial burden. She is now trying to juggle this bill on top of the fact that she is not working during her maternity leave.
But here’s the real issue: under both Iowa law and the Family Leave and Medical Act, billing employees for medical expenses is actually legal.
“It was kind of a shock,” said Manley. “I wasn’t prepared for it. I wasn’t ready for it. I knew it was a possibility. I didn’t think it would happen really that fast and that I would have to pay it back that fast.”
The law states that employers can bill former employees for medical costs as long as their reason for leaving isn’t due to a serious medical condition or circumstances beyond their control.
That applies to Manley’s situation of accepting a new job. It would also apply to moms who decide not to work anymore.
“I can understand the company’s point of view, but at the same time, to do that to a young family is really difficult, to be on the other side of it,” said Manley. “If there are other women going through this, you’re not alone.”
The US policies for maternity leave are pretty meager compared to many places around the world.
In Australia, new mothers have a minimum of 12 months’ maternity leave, 18 weeks of which are paid. Sweden, meanwhile, has some of the best parental benefits in the world. Both parents get 18 months of leave, 16 months of which are paid.
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