The Savvy Mom’s Guide to Maternity Leave
Planning for a baby involves doctor appointments, poring over stacks of how-to books, researching baby gear, and putting together to-do lists – and that’s just a sampling. If you’re a working parent, you also need to understand and prepare for maternity leave (also known as paternity family leave) so you can take the time to bond with your baby, heal and adjust to compeltely new routines and responsibilities, while doing what you can to minimize lost income while you’re out.
The confusing part is that maternity leave benefits can look very different depending on where you live and work. This guide will give you tips to consider when arranging for your leave, from talking points to discuss with your employer to how the US compares to other countries. Armed with the right information, you can have as much confidence planning your leave as you have in buying that new stroller.
The State of Maternity Leave in the United States
Maternity leave is the period of absence from the workplace that is sometimes granted to a mother before and/or after the birth of a child. The term “parental leave” or “family leave” is an umbrella term that includes the leave of either parent. Paternity leave is intended for a father or partner after the birth of a baby.
How Long is Maternity Leave?
How long you could take time off for maternity leave varies widely depending on the industry you are in, the type and size of company you work for and where you live. Unlike other countries, the United States does not offer paid maternity leave to all employees.
Many people think that maternity leave consists of at least 12 weeks (about 3 months) of time off. Perhaps that’s because it’s the legally protected period a mother is protected to take unpaid time off and keep her job at many companies, per the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) of 1993. But this applies only to certain employers and employees.
For you to be protected by the FMLA, your employer must fall into one of the following categories:
- Public agency
- Public or private elementary or secondary school
- Private company with 50 or more employees
You must also be an eligible employee, who:
- Has worked for their employer for at least 12 months and for at least 1,250 hours over the past 12 months
- Works at a location where the company, organization or agency employs 50 or more employees within 75 miles.
However, the reality is that beyond meeting those minimum requirements, it’s completely up to each company as to what they offer to hold an employee’s job while they’re on leave. Some employers offer 12 paid weeks (or more!), and some even offer an additional amount of paid leave that can be taken before the FMLA kicks in. Others offer different durations of extended unpaid leave.
In addition, many American women don’t receive or take much maternity leave at all. And if they do, it’s often unpaid. According to a recent study conducted for the United States Department of Labor, of employees who took leave in a 12-month time span, 42% received full pay, 24% received partial pay and 34% received no pay while on leave.
Bottom line: Be sure to research your company’s policy so you can plan for the time you’d like to take and be prepared.
Is Your Maternity Leave Paid?
On the federal level, there are no laws or policies for a standard paid maternity leave. In fact, the US is among the few nations in the world to not offer national paid maternity leave. President Biden included a proposal for 12 weeks of paid leave in his “Build Back Better” plan which was ultimately voted down, but many organizations and politicians continue to fight for similar legislation.
In addition, individual company policies also impact whether or not maternity leave is paid. As mentioned previously, some companies only offer the unpaid time off provided by FMLA. Other companies provide reduced pay for the duration of a leave, and some offer employees their full, regular pay. For example, companies such as FedEx and Netflix have recently gained attention for having progressive paid maternity and paternity leave policies.
Which States Offer Paid Maternity Leave?
While there is no federal law mandating paid maternity leave, a handful of states which offer their own maternity leave policies, which usually include at least a paid portion of leave. These states are: California, New Jersey, Rhode Island, New York, Washington (state), Washington DC (district), Massachusetts, Connecticut. Oregon and Colorado will soon enact paid leave laws. Each law differs, but these states have set a higher standard for paid leave policies over the others. First thing to know is that with many of these state policies, your maternity benefit pay is generally a percentage of your regular full pay (but it’s better than nothing). Next, you have to meet certain requirements regarding how long you’ve been employed. Finally, it’s important to be aware that many of these programs are funded by voluntary payment into a state insurance’s policy.
How the FMLA Impacts Maternity and Other Leave
Though most people think of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) as referring only to maternity leave, it actually protects workers from losing their jobs due to any medical absence. FMLA applies to employees of public agencies, schools, and companies with 50 or more employees. It can also be used for the birth and care of newborns as well as for adoption or foster care placement. FMLA can also be used for the care of immediate family members or personal care, if one is unable to work because of a serious health condition.
The Family and Medical Leave Act provides employees with job security and continued group health insurance benefits, but it does not require a company to pay the employee during the leave. According to the United States Bureau of Labor, since FMLA also only applies to companies with 50 or more employees, that leaves entrepreneurs and workers at small businesses with no coverage.
It’s important to note that under the FMLA, time taken off work due to pregnancy complications can be counted against the 12 weeks of family and medical leave.
States/Districts with Maternity Leave Policies
WEEKS of FMLA Protected Unpaid Leave
How the US Maternity Leave Compares to Other Countries
Sadly, the United States ranks at the bottom of economically advanced countries in regards to maternity leave policy. As of 2021, Mexico offers 12 weeks of paid leave and Ireland offers 26 weeks. Finland is extremely generous, allowing each parent around 23 weeks (about 6 months) of paid leave. Each country differs in its policies concerning the amount of pay, with some offering full salary and some providing just a percentage of pay. According to The New York Times, globally, the average length of paid maternity leave is 29 weeks, and the average length of paid paternity leave is 16 weeks.
Talking to your company about maternity leave
If you are expecting, research and and all leave provided by your current employer. Start by looking at your employee handbook and identifying established leave policies. If you’re planning to take time off postpartum, review leave benefits, paid time off, vacation time and/or sick leave. If you need assistance understanding your own company’s leave policies, contact your Human Resources (HR) department.
How to Maximize Your Paid Leave Potential
There are many creative ways to extend your paid time off as you step away from work to care for a new baby. Some women save their regular paid time off (vacation time, and/or sick days) in order to extend their leave. Be sure to ask your employer about their policies on combining vacation, sick and/or and family pay.
You can also consider participating in your company’s short-term disability insurance; many of these programs cover part of maternity leave. If your company pays for part of your salary as a paid maternity leave benefit, adding short-term disability is a way to get close to your full compensation while you’re out.
What if Your Employer Doesn’t Offer Maternity Leave?
If your company doesn’t have a paid policy, you may opt to negotiate your maternity leave. Do as much research as you can and develop a concrete proposal. Plan a meeting to present your needs and your suggestions. Have a firm idea about what you are and are not willing to negotiate.
You might discuss examples of similar companies that provide more progressive leave policies. You can also talk about how maternity leave changes could benefit all employees, for example, by potentially improving organization morale and loyalty and encouraging overall company performance.
When holding conversations around your company’s current maternity leave policies and any proposed changes, be curious about how they may impact everyone. Ask questions such as:
- How does the maternity leave policy affect employee retention?
- How does the leave policy influence female advancement in the company?
- Does the length of leave alleviate stress levels and support performance of women returning to work?
- How does paternity and other family leave factor in?
Should I Ask About Maternity Leave During Job Interviews?
As a rule of thumb, the short answer is “no” – at least not until you have a firm offer in hand and are reviewing benefits and paid time off policies. However, most companies are savvy enough to know that employees expect these issues to be addressed, so you’ll often get that information at the time of a job offer. Or you can often find information about a company’s maternity and family leave policy on their Careers or About Us page.
How Much Time Do Companies Offer for Paternity Leave?
Currently in the United States, paternity leave is even more dependent on individual workplace policies than that of maternity leave. Some companies do not offer paternity leave at all, though some employees may incorporate FMLA. Other companies have made specific policies for paternity leave. Some organizations have created policies that apply to either partner and are the same for the birthing or adopting mother and the partner. Across the world, 48% of countries provide paid leave for fathers. The United States guarantees none, but policymakers in the U.S. are working on initiatives such as PL+US to advance access to both maternity and paternity leave.
Some companies offer 14 to 30 days of time off (paid or unpaid) for partners. Employees with flexible employers can get creative with their time and take a week or two off to bond with their family – and then use the remainder to take a day off a week, until the time runs out.
Take the Time to Plan
If you are preparing for a new baby, take time to factor in maternity and paternity leave. Your benefits will completely depend on your workplace, where you live and how long you’ve worked there. Consider the financial effects of any leave, the mental and emotional aspects and the recovery time needed. Be armed with what you need to know if you’re considering resigning all together after your leave. Get to know the policies of your current employer (and your partner’s employer), so that you can plan for and utilize all available time off work to best support your family. Talk to your close friends and family to get advice, especially if this is your first pregnancy.
Above all, don’t shortchange yourself or underestimate the amount of time off you may truly need to properly adjust and bond with your baby.