You May Not Realize This Benefit Doesn't Kick In Right Away...

photographed by Erin Yamagata.
Landing a job with good pay and benefits can feel like hitting the jackpot these days. If you've gone without either of those things for a meaningful amount of time, even a simple trip to the dentist's office that doesn't leave you moaning (from the hit to your wallet) may trigger adulting bliss.
Still, it's important to know that simply signing your employee contract doesn't necessarily give you immediate access to those shiny new perks. In fact, for some benefits like family leave, you may have to wait a not-insignificant amount of time to use them depending on where you live and work. Here's the deal:
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Workers can receive up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) with several restrictions. The person requesting FMLA leave has to work for a company that has 50 or more employees within a 75-mile radius of them; they have to have worked for that employer for at least 12 months; and they must have worked at least 1,250 hours (roughly 24 hours per week) during that year.
As Molly Weston Williamson, an attorney at A Better Balance, explains, if you've changed jobs relatively recently, or do so frequently ("which many low-income workers do"), or you are working part time, you may not be covered by the FMLA — even if your employer is a company or organization large enough to require coverage.
"What all these laws do is set up floors, not a ceiling," Weston Williamson says. "They're a minimum of what employers have to do, not a maximum." In recent years, a few state governments and many private companies are implementing laws and policies that "go beyond the minimum set by the FMLA." Still only four states offer paid family and medical leave — California, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and New York. While employers can't be discriminatory (granting more extensive leave based on race or religion for example), the rest of the benefit's details is up to their discretion.
An employer might choose to pay you while you take FMLA leave (again, remember FMLA is unpaid by law), or they might have a company policy that does grant some amount — a dollar amount or percentage of pay — while you are on leave. In other cases, that amount might be granted for a portion of your FMLA leave, but not the whole thing. Going further in the weeds, some companies might grant executive and C-suite employees paid leave while hourly employees miss out. There's also frequently a difference in benefits offered for fathers and mothers. (As was the case with Starbucks, which amended its policies early this year.)
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The best way to ensure that you have the coverage you need is to learn as much as you can about these policies in advance, Weston Williamson advises.
"We’ve certainly seen workers who [didn't] realize that not everybody gets paid leave. That’s been an unpleasant surprise for a lot of people. It’s often people who have never thought about the situation before or who may have worked in other countries," she says. "Particularly when we’re speaking about maternity leave specifically, essentially every other country in the world does better than the United States."
If you're even remotely curious about your company's offerings, reference your employee handbook or talk to your human resources department to learn more. (So it isn't a surprise when your own company says you have to wait six months before your paid leave kicks in...) If you work somewhere without an official HR team, consider speaking directly with your manager or doing recon to see what your colleagues have — or haven't — received. And don't assume the benefits you got one place will carry over to your next job.
"The further ahead of time you understand the full scope of what your rights are," Weston Williamson says, "the more time you have to speak with your employer, advocate for a better situation, make a plan that’s going to work for you — so at the least, you are better prepared for what’s going to happen next."
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