Maternity leave in the United States: What you need to know

Understand what maternity leave looks like in the US.

Image blocks containing a textured pattern, Statue of Liberty, and mother and child

When you're hiring employees globally, it’s important to have an understanding of the employment laws that will impact your workforce. One important area to consider is maternity leave, as it differs from country to country.

Maternity leave in the US might look a little different than in other countries, so in this blog post, we’ll explore the ins and outs of maternity leave in the United States.

State of maternity leave in the United States

What is maternity leave?

Maternity leave refers to a period of time that a mother takes off from work to have a baby. Norms and expectations surrounding the duration of leave, payment during the time off, and ability to return to the workforce vary from country to country. 

Employers may offer paid or unpaid maternity leave. Under paid maternity leave, the individual receives some portion of income while absent from work. The amount of pay offered and the duration of paid leave available is dictated by local labor laws.

Unpaid maternity leave, as the name implies, does not offer compensation during the time that is taken off. However, mothers are guaranteed their position when they return to the workforce, protecting them from unemployment and professional setbacks. In cases where mothers are planning to take unpaid maternity leave, they will need a financial plan to account for the temporary loss of income.

Maternity leave definition

Maternity leave laws in the United States

In the United States, there is no national mandate on paid maternity leave. Each state has its own legislation. Companies are left to create their own maternity leave packages which act as part of their benefits offerings and serve to attract and retain top talent. 

Because maternity leave in the United States is treated as a benefit, there is significant variability in the amount of time off that is offered from company to company and from state to state. 

Unfortunately, most Americans do not receive maternity leave benefits through their employer.

Pull quote on top of map of the US

Pre-FMLA background

Before 1993, maternity leave was left to state law, collective bargaining, and employer policies. Many employees faced unemployment following time taken off for serious illnesses or childbirth. 

Following World War I, efforts have been made to recognize the physical and emotional impact that childbirth has on new mothers. In 1987, a landmark case in California made it mandatory for most employers to grant women unpaid disability leave and the right to return to work following childbirth.

This paved the way for the Family and Medical Leave Act that would come to pass at the federal level six years later. 

What the FMLA changed

The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 made it mandatory for many employers in the United States to guarantee up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for childbirth (or adoption), recovering from a serious illness, or taking care of a seriously ill person. 

Some states and the District of Columbia have extended this law to expand the number of individuals who are eligible for maternity leave and/or to offer partial salary to new parents:

  • California
  • Colorado
  • Connecticut
  • Massachusetts 
  • New Jersey
  • New York
  • Oregon
  • Rhode Island
  • Washington

Conditions for FMLA 

The Family and Medical Leave Act, however, does not universally cover all employees. Employers with less than 50 employees are exempt from this requirement. As a result, employees at small businesses rarely qualify. 

Employees at companies with at least 50 employees must work within a range of 75 miles from the main office. Additionally, employers are only required to meet these requirements for employees that have worked for the company for a year for 25 hours per week. Employees are also required to provide 30 days of advanced notice before taking any unpaid leave. 

These exclusions do not provide universal protection for employees, leaving many to struggle with difficult decisions and potential employment insecurity. 

Current situation

In a survey conducted by the US Department of Labor, only 56% of U.S. employees are eligible for unpaid time off under the FMLA. In total, 59% of private sector employees are employed by firms with at least 50 employees, and are therefore covered by the FMLA.

Overall, 15% of US employees reported taking leave for a qualifying FMLA reason. Of that population, 25% took leave for the arrival of a new child (as opposed to for other health reasons). 

Navigating maternity leave doesn't have to be complicated

Having an understanding of maternity leave can be the difference between a compliant global employment force and legal issues. You can prove to your top talent that you have their best interest at heart by making sure they can participate to the fullest in the maternity leave regulations of their home country. By engaging experts who understand the lay of the land, you'll be able to provide great employee experiences for your employees in the United States.

Want to learn more about hiring in the United States? Check out this guide!

About Oyster

Oyster is a global employment platform designed to enable visionary HR leaders to find, hire, pay, manage, develop, and take care of a thriving distributed workforce. Oyster lets growing companies give valued international team members the experience they deserve, without the usual headaches and expense.

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