HR Management & Compliance

Maternity and Paternity Leave in the United States

Perhaps you’ve heard the statistics in the news lately: the United States lags behind most other nations in terms of how much guaranteed maternity and paternity leave is provided to employees. In fact, it shocks some people in other countries to learn that there is no mandated maternity and paternity leave at all!

Similar to the fact that vacation time is not a benefit mandated by federal law, maternity and paternity leave is often left up to the will of the employer. Some employers do provide such leave, and some even provide it with pay. Others have no provision at all and instead require employees to either use personal and/or vacation days or rely on the provisions allotted by the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).

Maternity and Paternity Leave: Some U.S. Laws that Cover the Gaps

While there is no mandated maternity/paternity leave at the federal level, there are a few laws that exist to bridge some of the gaps. Here are some examples:


We already mentioned the FMLA, which is a federal regulation that provides up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave. This leave can be used to care for a new child (either newborn or newly adopted) and can be taken by either parent. This is often the default that new parents use when other alternatives don’t exist. However, this is not always an ideal solution because:

  • FMLA allotments do not get extended for maternity/paternity leave if the FMLA leave is already exhausted from other means. That is to say, time off under the FMLA can be used for a variety of other purposes, and an employee’s allotted time could easily be used up before the need for maternity/paternity leave arises;
  • FMLA leave is unpaid. Therefore, it is not always an option for employees who must rely on their income to make ends meet—12 weeks without pay may not be logistically feasible, even if they qualify for it;
  • Qualifying for FMLA leave can be a significant hurdle, and not all employees and employers are eligible for coverage. To qualify, the employer must have 50 or more employees within a 75-mile radius of the employee’s location, and the employee must have worked at least 1,250 hours in his or her last year with the company. Most small businesses are not required to provide FMLA leave, and even if an employee works for a large business, he or she still may not be eligible; and
  • If both parents work for the same company, they can only take a total of 12 weeks—not 12 weeks each—for the same new child.

State Laws

There are several state laws that try to fill some of the gaps in maternity/paternity coverage. Here are some examples:

  • Extended FMLA benefits. State laws often extend FMLA provisions and/or provide additional considerations when leave is taken for maternity. Check your local laws to see what might apply. Here are some examples of state-specific provisions:
    • Some states require a partial wage replacement rather than leaving all leave unpaid.
    • Some states amend the requirements for employer eligibility by reducing the number of employees necessary to qualify, making more employers responsible for providing FMLA leave.
    • Some states allow for an absence longer than 12 weeks.
  • Disability leave. Some states have opted to include pregnancy and maternity in their medical disability leave provisions. This means that pregnancy and childbirth would qualify a mother for temporary or short-term disability leave, which typically comes with at least partial pay replacement.
  • Pregnancy disability leave. Another option in some states is Pregnancy Disability Leave. This option completely separates pregnancy-related medical issues from FMLA—thus negating the issue of FMLA leave being exhausted before the child is born.

Employer Policies

Finally, employers themselves can bridge the gaps in coverage. Much like providing vacation time even though it’s not legally mandated, many employers choose to offer maternity/paternity leave voluntarily, and some also allow the leave to be fully or partially paid. Employers may find that this benefit can help reduce turnover because it makes the transition into parenthood easier for employees. Companies also may offer the leave as a strategic tool to give them a competitive advantage in the market while recruiting talented employees.

With all of these potential options, a number of new parents do find they’re able to spend some quality time with their newborn or newly adopted child. However, many others do not. While provisions can be available, they may only be implemented in select states, and the FMLA doesn’t cover all employers, let alone all employees. This leaves many new parents with little or no time off to care for their new child and recover from pregnancy and childbirth.


About Bridget Miller:

Bridget Miller is a business consultant with a specialized MBA in International Economics and Management, which provides a unique perspective on business challenges. She’s been working in the corporate world for over 15 years, with experience across multiple diverse departments including HR, sales, marketing, IT, commercial development, and training.

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