Parental Leave: Your Rights and Why They Matter

What are your rights with regard to maternity and paternity leave in the U.S.? It can be confusing, and there’s room to improve.

Illustration by Anke Weckmann

Unpaid job-protected leave
Generally, the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) says companies with more than 50 employees—and government agencies and schools—must allow you to take 12 weeks of unpaid leave for the medical care of a family member, including for the birth or adoption of a child—with the guarantee of job security. Many employees choose or are required to cobble together pseudo-paid leave, using paid sick and vacation days and short-term disability, before using their FMLA; those days will usually run concurrent with your 12-week total.

Unfortunately, many workers who qualify for FMLA feel they cannot afford to take three months unpaid. Those who do may report difficulty making ends meet, assumption of debt, or necessity to quit. Also, about 40 percent of U.S. workers do not qualify for FMLA, like part-time and low-wage workers. About 25 percent of new mothers return to work within two weeks of giving birth—much too early for mom and baby.

Paid job-protected leave
To attract and retain employees, about 11 percent of employers offer paid leave policies. The benefits are immeasurable: Research shows that paid time off is associated with lower infant mortality rates. Plus, access to maternity leave increases the likelihood that a woman will return to her career.

The FMLA is due for a revision that will cover more workers. The U.S. is the only developed country that does not offer paid maternity leave. In comparison, Kenya and China give workers 90 days paid, while the United Kingdom gives one year. As for paternity leave? Portugal, Iceland, Norway, and Luxembourg provide two or more months for dads.

Considering the needs of modern families and businesses, President Obama has provided funding for the Department of Labor to help states create paid leave programs. Four states (and dozens of cities) have done so, using various methods of financing. What are the results? Most businesses report no decrease in profitability.

Local employers can see the benefits of a paid leave program. “Anything that focuses on the health and well-being of your workforce only goes to further the company brand as a great place to work,” says Rebecca Face, talent acquisition manager at Givaudan Flavors Corp. “It strengthens the commitment employees feel toward their employer, and that increases productivity. Everyone wins!”

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