For women considering whether to return to work when their maternity leave ends, there are many practical things to think about—and a few legal issues as well. First and foremost, of course, are financial questions: How will you and your family pay the bills and secure health insurance? How long can you afford to stay out of the workforce? What effect will your time off have on your future career prospects?
As you think through these important money matters, you’ll need to know your legal rights—and obligations—when you quit your job after having a baby.
Many women can’t afford to quit, or don’t want to for other reasons. Of course, some women love their jobs and want to keep working throughout their parenting years. Other women might want to take a longer break from work but are concerned that it will hurt their earning power or career prospects. In this situation, you might try to explore other options with your company to help you better balance your work and family.
Employers have no legal obligation to accommodate parents by, for example, offering part-time work or allowing flexible schedules. Although a number of states require employers to accommodate the physical limitations of pregnant employees, this right ends for most women after they give birth. If you have an ongoing need for accommodation relating to your pregnancy– for example, because you suffered an injury during childbirth, you may still be entitled to accommodation, depending on your state’s law.
If, however, your company provides accommodations like these to other employees for other reasons, it may not discriminate based on a protected characteristic. For instance, a company can’t offer new fathers—but not new mothers—the opportunity to work part time. And, a company that routinely allows schedule changes for employees to return to school or pursue hobbies may not deny those same benefits only to new mothers.
If your company isn’t obligated to offer you accommodations, you can still try to negotiate them. Especially if the alternative is losing a valued employee, your company might be willing to make a few changes, such as temporary part-time work, scheduling changes that will allow you and your partner to manage child care (such as coming in earlier, leaving earlier, working more or fewer days, and so on), doing some of your work from home, curtailing business travel, and so on. It can’t hurt to ask.
Even if you know you want to quit, there are a few legal matters to consider. First, you should know that unless you have an employment contract limiting your ability to quit, you are completely within your rights to quit your job. Some women worry that they might get into legal trouble if they don’t return to work after promising that they would. For the vast majority of women, this is more of a practical and ethical question than a legal one. Unless you are contractually bound to stay in your job for a certain amount of time (because, for example, you signed an employment contract for a five-year term and you are only in year two of the job), you are legally entitled to quit.
That said, there might be some legal consequences of quitting, including:
You should also check your employee handbook to make sure you understand how quitting will affect your other employee benefits. Will you be fully vested in your retirement benefits, for example? Will you have to pay back all or part of a signing bonus? What are the rules about company property, such as a car, laptop, or phone? You’ll want to know all of the consequences of quitting before you make a final decision.
Once you’ve decided to quit, you’ll need to figure out some details, such as how much notice to give and how to explain your decision. Generally, you aren’t required to give any particular amount of notice, although two weeks’ notice is customary.
Your decisions here will depend on what kind of relationship you hope to maintain with your employer and how you think your employer might react. Giving as much notice as possible allows your employer time to hire a replacement and plan for the future. This might leave you in the best position for the future, in case you need a reference for a new job.
On the other hand, once you give notice that you are definitely not returning to work, your employer is free to replace you and terminate your employment. Although the FMLA requires your employer to return you to your former position once your leave is over, this obligation ends once you give notice that you will not return to work. You might find yourself cut off from health insurance and other benefits and any employer-provided paid leave programs you were using. (Many employees have the right to continue their health insurance after quitting under COBRA, but you’ll have to pay the full premium if you go this route.) For this reason, many employees feel it’s too risky to give notice well in advance.
Only you can decide how best to handle this situation, balancing your need for financial certainty against what you know of your employer and what feels like the right thing to do. When you do give notice, try to do so in person, emphasizing the things you have enjoyed about the job. Especially if you want to maintain your professional connections and may need a reference down the road, you’ll want to do all you can to maintain a positive relationship with your former employer.