The Facts About American Maternity Leave
Written by Alexi Strong Gonzalez
Singapore: Working mothers are entitled to 16 weeks paid maternity leave, provided their child is a citizen of Singapore.
Australia: New moms get up to 12 months maternity leave, with the first 18 weeks paid to any mother working for 10 months prior to giving birth.
Sweden: Prenatal leave for mothers and fathers, and both parents are afforded 16 months of postnatal paid parental leave to split among themselves as they see fit.
United States of America: ...Umm...
I was young and naïve when I found out I was pregnant with my first child four years ago. I’d entered the full-time workforce two years prior and had only been a salaried, benefited employee for 10 months when that plus sign appeared on the stick.
I hadn’t thought too much about the logistics of becoming a parent and how that would fit into my work life (and vice versa). I just kind of thought: It’ll be okay. I’ll use maternity leave.
I was lucky at the time to work for a large organization with relatively generous benefits and health insurance that didn’t break the bank, but I was (naïve enough to be) flabbergasted to learn that I was entitled to no designated paid maternity leave.
Had I been saving up my PTO, one superior at work asked me?
“Good, you’ll need it!”
I crunched numbers to learn that if I took absolutely no more than the two days of vacation I’d already planned coming up, I would have exactly eight weeks of paid time off I could use for maternity leave. That meant working through lunch every day I had a doctor’s appointment so I didn’t have to log even one hour of time off, and putting on a brave face every morning when pregnancy nausea was tempting me to call in sick.
I contacted HR on the advice of my boss to see if I could enroll in the sick leave pool or add short-term disability benefits to my health plan. I was told that pregnancy is considered a preexisting condition and I was eligible for neither.
In the end, it all worked out. My meticulous planning resulted in exactly the eight weeks of leave I’d hoped to take, and my husband’s company offered a generous parental leave policy that allowed him to take a few weeks off while I worked from home before returning to the office full time. But I shudder at the thought of that clueless 24-year-old who could’ve easily damaged the family finances by needing to take weeks and weeks of unpaid leave.
Whether you plan on getting pregnant or not, knowing what your employer and the government entitles you to as a mother is crucial information for any babe to have. Let’s break it down, shall we?
The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) was signed into law in 1993. You may hear people throw the acronym around as almost synonymous with paid leave, but don’t think for a moment that it actually is.
Essentially FMLA means this, specifically regarding pregnancy and maternity leave: If you have worked for a company with 50 or more employees (within 75 miles of your worksite) for at least 12 months, you are allowed to take 12 weeks of unpaid leave to recover from childbirth and care for/bond with your newborn without being fired or losing your health benefits. Men are covered by this policy, as well, but they must also meet all the above eligibility requirements.
The caveats: Time taken off for prenatal care, such as being placed on bedrest before you give birth, counts against those 12 weeks. And the biggest caveat of all: The U.S. government does not require employers to provide any designated paid parental leave to new mothers and fathers.
So, what are my options?
Different employers offer different things. Two main options can likely be utilized at most companies or businesses. The first is that you can do what a young me did about three years ago—save up your PTO and use it for maternity leave.
But also remember that once your time is up and you return to work, there will still be regular pediatrician’s appointments for baby, not to mention the inevitable unplanned appointments when they catch their first cold or develop an ear infection. If you drained your PTO for maternity leave, you may not have any saved up to take off time for things like that, or even your own routine appointments.
The second is that you can enroll in a short-term disability insurance plan. This may be offered as a supplementary policy through your employer, or you may have to procure it yourself. Pricing on these plans varies wildly, and also depend on how much you get paid. Essentially, you pay into the plan on a regular basis and receive a payout when you are involved in an accident that renders you disabled or if you give birth (let the insurance agent know if you are enrolling in the plan with the intent to use the payout for maternity leave—they can give you specific and helpful details).
Don’t learn the hard way (like I did)—you will likely not be eligible for this type of benefit if you try to enroll once you are already pregnant. Most plans stipulate they will only pay out upon childbirth if the child is born 10 months or more after the mother enrolled in the plan.
But what about breastfeeding when I’m back at work?
I returned to the office 12 weeks after giving birth and continued to breastfeed my son for a year after that. Thankfully, the Affordable Care Act (ACA) amended section seven of the Fair Labor Standards Act to require employers to provide “reasonable break time for an employee to express breast milk for her nursing child for one year after the child’s birth, each time such employee has need to express the milk.”
Basically, your employer must let you pump breast milk in a designated space (not a bathroom) that is “shielded from view and free from intrusion from coworkers and the public.” I had my own office that had no windows and a lockable door, so I would shut the door and pump there. Employees who work in cubicles or less private offices will need to use another space as designated by the employer.
However, if your employer has fewer than 50 employees and can demonstrate that compliance with the policy would impose an “undue hardship” on the business, they may be exempt from providing the space. Regardless of your specific situation, just ensure your employer has given thought to this and has a place set up for you on your first day back. Nothing will sour that first day back to work like leaking breast milk all over your business casual attire.
You’ve likely heard that the United States is leaps and bounds behind other countries in the developed world when it comes to maternity leave. Thankfully, many businesses are taking it upon themselves to offer employees paid parental leave as part of standard company policy. My hope for every babe is that they work at a company like that.
Whether or not you plan to get pregnant, all working babes out there should know what their rights are—or, aren’t—and should be prepared for how to handle life’s ultimate balancing act of becoming a working mom.
Alexi is a journalism grad from the University of Florida who recently traded years in non-profit communications for a corporate marketing management gig she totally loves. She and her husband are raising the world’s most adorable baby boy while updating their beach house and catching movies when they can leave the kid at Grandma’s. You’ll find her bike-riding and watching football games at kid-friendly breweries on weekends. For alarmingly liberal political opinions and TMI motherhood musings, follow her on Twitter at @alexigonzo.