Wellness·5 min read

How to Talk to HR About Taking Family Leave

Woman talking to man in an office
Design: theSkimm | Photo: Getty
February 25, 2022

A lot of parents still don't get paid time off when they have kids, and only about a quarter of workers actually have access to paid family leave. President Biden’s “Build Back Better” plan is still stalled in Congress, and along with it, the potential for federally-funded paid family leave. This means paid family leave is left to the private sector, where the number of weeks parents can take off – paid or unpaid – is up to employers.

We spoke with leadership expert Cy Wakeman, author of “Life’s Messy, Live Happy,” on how to talk to HR about taking family leave (whether it's included in your benefits package or not).

What is paid family leave?

Paid family leave is when an employee is able to take paid time off of work for a family or medical reason. This could include birthing or caring for a newborn, adoption, or caring for a family member. Currently, the US is the only industrialized nation in the world without paid family leave. 

How can I find out if my employer offers paid or unpaid family leave?

Since most paid family leave comes from employers, your best bet is to check your company’s family leave policy. Check how many weeks you're guaranteed, what percentage of your pay you’ll receive while taking leave, and what your company’s return to work policy is. If your company doesn’t offer paid family leave, you’ll still want to talk to HR about your options for taking leave without pay (if that’s even an option for you). And in the meantime, check out our guide for how to financially plan for your leave. 

How do I talk to HR about taking family leave? 

Wakeman says to prep for your meeting in two stages: the discovery phase (when you educate yourself on your company’s family leave policy) and the requesting phase (when you start talking to HR about taking leave). But she says not to give too much away about your personal family situation, and instead to ask HR for clarity on allll your benefits, including PTO and sick days. And when they request documentation, ask them to be specific and to share examples before submitting anything. “You want to emphasize, I want to be productive. I have a life situation, and I'm looking for ways that I can partner with the organization to be supported in this short-term situation.”  

Am I guaranteed paid family leave?

Even if your company doesn’t offer its own family leave policy, the federal government guarantees “12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave per year.” The catch is only some workers are eligible. 

  • If you work for a public agency, a public or private elementary and secondary school, or a company with 50 or more employees, you are eligible for federal leave. 

  • You have to have worked at your company for at least 12 months, worked 1,250 hours during those months, “and work at a location where the company employs 50 or more employees within 75 miles.”

Thing to know: Your state might offer some form of paid leave. Nine states, plus Washington, D.C., do. Massachusetts's paid family leave policy has a max weekly benefit of $1,084.31 and up to 26 weeks off. While states like California cover up to eight weeks and between 60-70% of your weekly pay. 

Can I negotiate my family leave?

Short answer, yes. Wakeman says if you want to negotiate your leave that you should only offer what you’re ready and willing to do. Whether that’s adjusting your schedule to be available one day a week to answering emails. Experts say in order to start the conversation, do it face-to-face, not over email. And then after talking in person (or over zoom), put your request formally in writing. And it doesn’t have to be a one-stop meeting. Schedule a checkpoint with HR during your leave to determine when you’re ready to return or phase back into work rather than setting a date ahead of time if you have that flexibility. Wakeman says that whether you have a company leave policy or only can use what is federally mandated, you have options with how you use that leave. Pro tip: Instead of taking it all at once, think about breaking up that leave based on what could work for you and your family’s needs. The Family and Medical Leave Act allows eligible workers to take that leave “in periods of whole weeks, single days, hours, and in some cases even less than an hour.” 

PS: theSkimm asked employers to share their family leave policies to add transparency around the benefits that are out there and to help advocate for change at a national scale. As you prepare to take your own leave, consider it a resource for what you can put on the table. 

What if I don’t qualify for state, federal, or company family leave?

First off, deep breaths. Second, look into your options. Childcare in the US costs about $10,000 per child each year. But some organizations are trying to help parents do work-life and home-life and all the other lives. 

  • The federal government gives funding to states to offer low-income families financial assistance for child care.

  • Head Start and Early Head Start programs are funded by the federal government to offer low-income families (from pregnancy to 5-year-olds) free educational programs. They also offer some free medical and dental care as well as food. 

  • The YMCA offers free to low-cost memberships that includes childcare and after school care – including emergency childcare for essential workers. 

  • Otter connects parents with other stay-at-home parents who are able to take care of their children.

  • Room to Grow provides low-income parents with baby items and connects them with community resources.

How can I advocate for paid family leave on a national scale?

Glad you asked. While you can certainly fight for yourself and your family within your company, the majority of workers don’t have protected income if they take family leave. This can only happen from the federal government. Email your senators to make paid family leave a right, not just a perk. 


Family leave is often categorized as a “benefit” when it should be considered a right granted to all parents. The responsibility shouldn’t fall solely on the shoulders of parents to get the leave they deserve. Email your elected officials, vote, and share your company’s parental leave policy. 

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