Parenthood

What Working Women Need to Know About Maternity Leave

Why does the United States make it so difficult?

Maternity leave in the United States is, to put it mildly, both complicated and inadequate. There is no one standard policy for everyone. Some women are guaranteed maternity leave at the state level, while some are guaranteed maternity leave at the federal level. Some have both options, while some have neither option. Some women are guaranteed paid maternity leave, while others are required to take their maternity leave unpaid.

It would be ideal for the U.S. to provide paid maternity leave to everyone who needs it, said Myra Strober, labor economist and professor of economics at the Stanford Graduate School of Business and author of Sharing the Work: What My Family and Career Taught Me about Breaking Through (and Holding Open the Door for Others).

“It’s important for the mom, it’s important for the family, it’s important for the child,” she said. “We need to recognize the value of maternity leave and the value of the work that new moms do.”

You may need some help navigating the confusing ins and outs of maternity leave (or, in some cases, family leave). Here are some basic questions about maternity leave, who is eligible to take it, and what to do on maternity leave that working women (and their partners!) need to know:

Will you be paid on maternity leave?

When it comes to being paid maternity leave, it will depend on your employer and the state in which you reside. “Not everybody gets one and certainly not everybody gets one that’s paid,” explained Strober.

The U.S. does not have paid nationwide maternity leave. In fact, the U.S. received the lowest ranking for parental leave policies, based on an analysis of 42 high- and middle-income countries in a report based on 2016 data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

The closest thing Americans have to maternity leave is the Family And Medical Leave Act (FMLA) of 1993, a labor law which guarantees 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave within a 12-month period.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor website:

“The FMLA entitles eligible employees of covered employers to take unpaid, job-protected leave for specified family and medical reasons with continuation of group health insurance coverage under the same terms and conditions as if the employee had not taken leave.”

Employees can also use sick days, vacation days and personal days — all of which are paid — in addition to FMLA leave.

Eight states have passed legislation regarding various types of paid family leave. The most recent state to pass paid family leave was Oregon, in July 2019, which Huffington Post called “the best family leave law in the U.S.”

If you must get paid while taking maternity leave, then you will want to consider what state you live in, and a potential employer’s maternity leave policy, before finding a job.

What do maternity leave laws require your employer to do?

The FMLA guarantees unpaid, job-protected leave following the birth of a child or to care for a newborn within one year of birth. The FMLA also guarantees unpaid, job-protected leave within one year of placement for a parent who is adopting or fostering a child.

In other words, your employer must hold your job for you during the time that you are on maternity leave.

Several states provide paid family leave, which is eligible to either parent or caregiver. Generally speaking, under these laws, you will be paid all or part of your salary while taking family leave.

If you live in New York, New Jersey, Oregon, Connecticut or other states that enacted paid family leave legislation, you should familiarize yourself with their specifics to find out if you are eligible.

Who is eligible under the FMLA?

Not everyone is eligible under the FMLA. Whether or not you are eligible will depend on your employer, the length of time you have been employed and the amount of hours you have worked.

According to the Department of Labor’s Employees Guide to the Family and Medical Leave Act, private employers with more than 50 employees located within 75 miles of the worksite are generally covered by the FMLA.

You are eligible for coverage under the FMLA if you have worked for at least 12 months over the past seven years. You also must have worked for at least 1,250 hours (about 24 hours per week) over the past 12 months.

There are different eligibility requirements for flight crew, flight attendants and military personnel under the FMLA, which you can read on the DOL website.

Employees are required to give 30 days of advance notice to take leave under the FMLA. If you need to take leave more suddenly — for example, if your baby arrives prematurely — then you should contact your employer as soon as possible to let them know your leave is needed.

Is there an ideal length for your maternity leave?

The ideal length of time to take maternity leave, of course, is up to each individual family. But for what it is worth, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Pediatric Policy Council both support providing 12 weeks of paid leave.

UNICEF recommended six months, or 24 weeks, as the ideal amount of time in an OECD report about paid maternity leave policies in the world’s wealthiest countries.

Does that sound like a long time? Well, about half of the countries examined in the OECD report offered six months or more leave. The top three best countries for paid maternity leave were Estonia, Hungary and Bulgaria, offering 85, 72 and 65 weeks, respectively.

Will you have health insurance during maternity leave?

If you are taking maternity leave through the FMLA, you will still have health insurance if you continue to pay your premiums during that time.

You will want to check your state’s and your employer’s specific legislation or policy on health insurance while taking a paid parental leave.

What is short-term disability leave and should you take it after having a baby?

Some moms take a short-term disability leave in order to take maternity leave. Connecticut, for instance, passed a paid family leave law in June 2019 which is an employee-funded disability insurance policy. (That law goes into effect on Jan. 1, 2022).

While people may refer to it as a paid family leave, what actually happens is that a person receives disability insurance payments while on the leave.

Short-term disability leave is considered philosophically controversial: New moms need time to physically heal but they are not disabled, and other partners are not physically affected by childbirth at all.

“I think making maternity benefits akin to short-term disabilities does harm to our thinking about this,” said Strober. “[New parenthood is] not a disability.”

She continued, “That said, it’s been good that over the last 40 years or so, some women have been able to get paid maternity benefits because their state thinks of it as a temporary [disability].”

What fields have the best maternity leave?

Maternity leave benefits vary so widely that there is no particular industry that that is better or worse than others.

That being said, the tech industry seems to be one of the more progressive fields when it comes to offering paid leave for new parents. Amazon.com, for example, offers paid leave for all parents, as well as four weeks of prenatal leave for birth mothers.

Additionally, government agencies at the federal, state and local level are required to provide unpaid leave under the FMLA, regardless of their staff size. Employees at public elementary and secondary schools must also received unpaid leave under the FMLA.

Should you stay in touch with your co-workers while you’re on maternity leave?

Experts agree that moms should — briefly! —check in with work while on maternity leave.

Checking in with work not only keeps your contacts fresh, but it also helps new moms who are “going to need the network when they come back to work,” said Strober. “They should remember that they’re going to need these contacts in the future and so they should keep them live.”

Celia V. Harquail, author of “Feminism: A Key Idea for Business and Society,” agreed that keeping in touch with work is important, and she recommended checking in after about three weeks.

“I think that moms on maternity leave ought to spend the first three or so weeks completely disconnected from work,” she explained. “Anyone who’s ever had a newborn can dimly remember how hard those first few weeks are.”

The struggle is “[managing] other people’s perceptions of your commitment and competence,” Harquail continued. “Many times, others expect a new mom to care less about work once she’s a mom, and even to drop to part time or to quit work.”

That of course, is not always the case. Alas, new moms nevertheless must grapple with the assumptions that other people make about their choices.

“The paradox is that women are supposed to be 100% committed at work, and to be 100% committed to being a good mother, and these two things are assumed to be in conflict,” Harquail said.

If you are concerned that not being in communication with your boss or direct reports at all will cause them to question your commitment, you may want to establish a time to check in.

“Something like a ‘once a week for an hour’ check-in during a team standup meeting, or a round of emails to your direct reports and peers, can keep you on people’s minds as a valuable team member, while assuaging your own concerns about remaining relevant,” Harquail suggested.

You are, of course, entitled to disconnect completely during your leave time. If you do decide to do a regular check-in or to call in to important meetings, make sure to communicate to your manager and your peers that you will be checking in, but you’re still on leave until such-and-such a date. No one should treat you like you’re back from leave and put work on your plate.

Should you leave a maternity leave out-of-office message?

It’s definitely a good idea to leave an out-of-office message while you’re taking maternity leave.

Whether you want your out-of-office to be friendly or serious is up to your personality and the standards of your industry. The parenting blogs Romper and Awkward Mom both have suggestions for playful out-of-office messages to use, if your company would deem them appropriate.

Make sure to include one or two trusted contacts that folks can reach while you’re gone. Instruct those contacts to let you know if there is an absolute emergency (if you’re OK with that, of course).

Remember, if your leave is unpaid (as leave under the FMLA is), you are not getting paid for any work you do during this time.

What should you do if you’re fired while you’re on maternity leave?

Firing a mom just after giving birth? It sounds awful, but sadly, it happens. It is officially called retaliation in labor law parlance.

A DOL U.S. Wage and Hour Division fact sheet explains, “An employer is prohibited from discriminating or retaliating against an employee or prospective employee for having exercised or attempted to exercise any FMLA right.”

If you are fired while on maternity leave, you should speak with a labor lawyer. You may want to consider pursuing a wrongful termination lawsuit, based on what state and federal laws were violated by your employer.

What if you’re adopting a child?

The FMLA guarantees unpaid, job-protected leave for a parent who is adopting or fostering a child, within one year of placement.

Final thoughts on maternity leave

A lot of parents agree that the lack of paid maternity in the U.S. is a negative aspect of our society. One thing that anyone can do is advocate for legislating paid maternity leave through an organization like the National Partnership for Women and Families. In the workplace, they can advocate that their employers provide paid family leave, and support coworkers who use maternity leave or parental leave.

“I would hope that everybody who is the recipient of a paid maternity benefit will work after their maternity leave is over to help ensure that other moms can get such a leave,” said Strober.

Jessica Wakeman is a journalist who focuses on women’s social, cultural and political issues. Her work has appeared in Bitch, Bust, Bustle, Glamour, Rolling Stone, The Cut, The New York Times, and numerous other publications. You can read her work here.