Replaced While on Maternity Leave: What's Legal, What's Not?

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Women at CNN are up in arms over the network’s Jan. 9 announcement that “New Day” co-anchor Kate Bolduan was replaced by her maternity leave fill-in Alisyn Camerota, while the first-time mom was still out of the office with her newborn. “The manner in which [network head Jeff Zucker] did it is angering female staffers,” a source told the New York Post. “They took [Bolduan] out while she was on maternity leave and buried it on a day when there’s serious news.” 

STORY: Maternity Leave in the U.S. vs. the Rest of the World

The anchor was last on air in October, one month into her leave, when she brought her daughter Cecelia to visit the show and gushed about how she has “totally changed” since becoming a mother. CNN did not return Yahoo Parenting’s request for comment about Bolduan, who, it turns out, has been moved over to co-host “This Hour,” starting Jan. 26. But outrage aside, experts insist the network did nothing wrong, from a legal perspective at least.

STORY: Dads: Don’t Feel Guilty About Asking for Paternity Leave

“There’s this assumption that you can’t be laid off if you’re on maternity leave or pregnant and that’s not the case,” Jennifer Owens, Director of the Working Mother Research Institute tells Yahoo Parenting. “If you’re targeted because you’re on leave or pregnant that’s illegal, but if there’s a large scale layoff, you can be gone like anyone else. There’s no special protection.”

Of course pregnancy rights have been all over the news in recent months, between former UPS driver Peggy Young’s U.S. Supreme Court case against her company, after she lost her job and health insurance following doctor’s orders that she not lift heavy packages, and the recent North Carolina nursing assistant Jamie Cole’s complaint filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission after she was taken off work when her pregnancy limited her abilities.

But there are lots of misconceptions about maternity leave. The most common is that leave is granted to all women. “What we often hear is that women think they have a right to paid maternity leave, but in actuality only 60 percent of workers are even eligible for unpaid leave,” Vicki Shabo, vice president of The National Partnership for Women & Families’ (NPWF), tells Yahoo Parenting.

The 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) grants all parents 12 unpaid weeks off  to care for a newborn, continue their health insurance, and return to the same or equivalent job, if, the employee has been at their position for at least 12 months (and 1,250 hours) and is employed by a company with 50-plus workers. So it’s a common story that women are barred from leave if they haven’t been at a job long enough or because their company is too small.

The women who do have leave may often not even understand the scope of their protections, says Shabo, noting that two-thirds of women are the breadwinners in families, which puts them in a position of feeling vulnerable about their job going forward post-baby. As a result, women tend to come back earlier from leave than they must, especially during a recession or downturn in the economy, adds Owens. That’s why she insists: “It always behooves you to know what your rights are.”

The best way to educate yourself on the subject is to do some research and to talk with your employer’s Human Resources representatives – in that order. “You should know what’s due to you ahead of time to be able to engage in an informed dialogue with HR,” says Shabo.

Handy resources include the Family Medical Leave Act, which the NPWF summarizes in an annual guide, the Department of Labor website, and NPWF’s summation of state’s individual laws in their guide, “Expecting Better.”

“If you don’t know what’s afforded to you, the deadlines to be aware of, or how long your leave lasts, how can you negotiate if you need to make some changes?” asks Owens. “Knowledge is power.”

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