All about maternity leave in America

by Adriana Stein
April 09, 2021
friends talking about maternity leave in america

The arrival of a new baby is a magical time. It’s time to get prepared and informed as we discuss American maternity policies and other options you have to ensure a stress-free time with your new bundle of joy.

Everything you need to know about maternity leave in America

Before we jump into the legal side of things, let’s go over a few of the basics below.

Important vocabulary related to maternity leave policies

In this guide I’ll discuss a few key terms about maternity leave, which include:

  • Short-term-disability (STD): insurance most commonly used for new mothers, which allows partial income coverage during the time of maternity leave
  • The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA): a policy that gives families unpaid time off, but still ensures their job upon their return
  • Maternity Leave: time off for mothers to recover from childbirth and bond with their baby
  • Paternity Leave: time off for fathers to spend time before, during, or after the birth of his baby
  • Family or Parental Leave: time away from work for both parents to care for their newborn child

Is there an official policy for maternity leave?

While Sweden, Norway, Croatia, and the UK offer the most paid maternity leave in the world, the United States unfortunately comes in at the lowest on the list for family-friendly policies.

Yes, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) of 1993 does allow parents to take up to 12 unpaid weeks of leave. This pertains to women that are pregnant, fostering, or adopting a child. But there is a catch. To qualify you must:

  • Have worked at least 24 hours a week
  • Have been employed for 12 or more months
  • Work for a company with 50 or more employees

This policy is undoubtedly not the most family-oriented and depends very much so on work circumstances rather than personal ones. Although the FMLA states there are positive outcomes from taking advantage of this policy (such as a decrease in infant mortality and higher birth weights), it’s largely unavailable to the mothers who need it most. 

When I lived in the US before moving to Germany as an expat, I was astonished when one of my pregnant colleagues had to march herself back to the classroom only 14 days after giving birth. Yeah…it’s not the greatest, but it’s the way it is.

What options do mothers have for taking maternity leave in America?

Despite quite a bleak situation for parental leave policies in general in the US, there are a few options to consider:

  1. Use Your Sick Leave: if you’ve saved up enough sick days from your job, you can consider using that in place of the FMLA, but it’s likely unpaid. However, this could be a better option in particular for government employees, because Obama put a policy into practice in 2015 where federal employees get at least 7 paid sick days per year. 
  1. Get a Tax Refund: according to the Internal Revenue Service, “paid family leave benefits are a form of unemployment compensation and are reportable for federal tax purposes”. With that said, there are options to get money back once tax season rolls around. Make sure to keep tabs on your finances during this time. It would be helpful to create a plan on spending before your baby’s arrival that way you budget and track all expenses. 
  1. Short-Term Disability Insurance: although it varies by state, this is an option where new mothers can take out insurance that covers the lost wages during maternity leave. The following states offer this option are: New York, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and Hawaii. 
  1. Apply to Qualify for the Family Leave Act: newly passed in 2020, the Family Leave Act is a 12-week paid maternity leave option available in 9 states. If you’re eligible, you’ll be required to submit documentation which states you are indeed having a child, and you’ll also have to continue working at least 12 weeks after your leave is over. You can learn more about specific Family Leave laws by state here, and more about the Family Leave Act here

Quick note: I’d like to mention the importance of your mental health and well-being pre and post-baby to prevent postpartum depression or other pregnancy-related illnesses. The Center for Disease Control has a comprehensive list of resources for new mothers that you can check out. 

Parental leave policies often depend on the state

Parental or family leave policies depend on the state. Currently, only some states offer paid parental leave and those are New York State, Washington State, Washington D.C., Rhode Island, New Jersey, and California.

California was a forerunner in the race, providing up to 70% paid leave for a maximum of eight weeks, while Rhode Island’s policy offers 60% of pay for a duration of four weeks. 

Be sure to check with your specific state laws and company to ensure smooth planning for your new baby.

Is it possible to ask for maternity leave from your employer?

Businesses in the US aren’t legally required to provide pay or even permission to take a break for maternity leave. Nonetheless, if you already know you’ll be pregnant in the near future, it would be worth discussing options with your employer. 

It’s no secret that it takes longer for federal and state laws to pass, but single businesses can create progressive change, and become more adaptable toward their employees’ needs. It never hurts to ask, so think about bringing this up when negotiating your employment contract.

Are fathers allowed to take paternity leave?

To say it simply, no… at least not on a state or federal level. However, there is an uprising of companies transforming the way paternity leave is handled. For example, Netflix offers up to 52 weeks of paid paternity leave, and Starbucks provides 6 weeks of 100% paid leave, and up to an additional 12 weeks of unpaid leave. Another notable company, Reddit, grants 16 weeks of paid leave for new moms and dads! To leave on a positive note, progressive change is happening little by little.

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