Maternity leave in the United States

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Maternity leave is a temporary period of absence from employment granted to expectant or new mothers during the months immediately before and after childbirth.[1] These policies are generally aimed at supporting the mother's full recovery from childbirth and facilitating a stronger mother-child bond.[2] This mechanism has gained greater salience in the past few decades as mothers increasingly enter the workforce.

Current United States maternity leave policy is directed by the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (FMLA) which includes a provision mandating 12 weeks of unpaid leave annually for mothers of newborn or newly adopted children. This policy is distinct to other industrialized countries for its relative scarcity of benefits, in terms of the short length of protected maternity leave and not offering some form of wage compensation for the leave of absence.[3]


Historically, maternity leave was not a pertinent legislative concern as most mothers did not consider working outside their home. Mothers were largely prevented from labor force participation due to their poor educational levels, limited occupational options and low overall female wage opportunities. Moreover, they were constrained by more restrictive gender norms that limited their access to employment. Between 1961 and 1965, only 14% of mothers actually participated in the workforce within 6 months of their child's birth.[4]

Prior to the enactment of FMLA legislation in 1993, maternity leave coverage was governed by state law, collective bargaining agreements and employer policies.[5] The first set of maternity leave related policies emerged in the late 1960s. By 1969, five states had enacted Temporary Disability Insurance laws protecting employees from income loss in the occurrence of a temporary medical disability.[6] Under this legislation, new mothers were granted leaves corresponding to the benefits that other employees received for temporary illness or disability. This state-level trend of maternity leave legislation continued into the 1970s and 1980s where multiple other states passed more explicit recognitions of new mothers' rights to a temporary leave of absence. Ultimately, 12 states and the District of Columbia had implemented measures requiring at least some private sector employers to offer maternity leave packages to its employees.[5] Even in the absence of this formal legislation, employees in other states often obtained maternity leave through collective bargaining. Employees frequently held enough bargaining power to influence employer policies and negotiate for the inclusion of maternity leave protection.

Despite some localized employees' access to maternity leave, there was growing pressure for national maternity leave legislation in the early 1990s. Many new mothers continued to be excluded from such maternity leave provisions despite growing national demand. Women now enjoyed greater employment opportunities and changing gender norms that encouraged increased labor involvement. This increased female employment extended to mothers as well who now were now more likely to engage in the workforce even if they had a young child. The labor participation rate of mothers with children under the age of 1 rose from 31% in 1976 to 54% in 1992.[7] In spite of a high labor force participation rate, only an estimated 40% of working women had access to explicit maternity leave protection. This inadequate national coverage provoked intense protest and growing national consensus on the value of maternity leave. Ultimately, the increased salience and galvanized national support prompted the 1993 enactment of the Family and Medical Leave Act mandating maternity leave.

Current state[edit]

Federal legislation[edit]

The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993, signed into law during President Bill Clinton's first term, guaranteed maternity leave to many new mothers across the nation. It mandated a minimum of 12 weeks unpaid leave to mothers for the purpose of attending to a newborn or newly adopted child.[8] However, the act did not attain universal coverage as it included several limiting stipulations. In order to receive maternity leave, employees must work in a firm of 50 or more employees, maintain employment with the same business for 12 months and have accumulated at least 1,250 working hours over those 12 months.

State legislation[edit]

Paid maternity leave by state

Many states have supplemented these federal regulations and provided more extensive maternity leave benefits. There are currently 25 states that expand upon federal legislation in some manner. Fourteen of these states, along with the District of Columbia, have addressed eligibility requirements by lowering the firm-size threshold from 50 or more employees down to as low as 10 employees.[9] Seven other states, in addition to the District of Columbia, have adopted more generous maternity leave lengths that allow longer absences for the purpose of child rearing. Moreover, some states have enacted legislation enhancing the benefits of leave programs. California, New Jersey and Washington, for instance, operate programs that require private-sector employers to pay their employees who utilize maternity leave at partial replacement rates.[3] Similarly, three other states and the District of Columbia designate childbirth as a temporary disability thus guaranteeing mothers paid maternity leave through Disability Insurance (TDI) provisions.[9]

Impacts of United States maternity leave[edit]


Child health and development[edit]

Maternity leave substantially increases child care which profoundly impacts the health of the child. Mothers on leave allot extra time for care which allows them to better monitor the health of their child. They become attuned to their child's health needs and are more effectively able to respond to any medical circumstances. Studies have concluded that an additional week of maternity leave among industrialized countries reduces infant mortality rates by 0.5 deaths per 1,000 live births.[10] There is also a positive correlation between maternal leave and the duration of breast-feeding.[11] Mothers who are not engaged in employment are more regularly able to participate in breast-feeding. Research has demonstrated this breast-feeding's ability to yield substantial health improvements in disease prevention and immune system build-up.[12] Moreover, there is considerable evidence that maternal care is especially crucial during the first couple of months following child birth, or the time in which American maternity leave is in effect.[13]

Similarly, access to maternity leave also has the ability to accelerate cognitive and behavioral development. Non-employed mothers are able to allocate substantially more time towards the educational and cognitive development of their child.[14] They can invest more time in generating intellectually stimulating environments and promoting healthy avenues for exploration. Even high-quality childcare from non-maternal care workers can not attenuate the negative consequences of early maternal employment on cognitive outcomes.[15] Likewise, longer exposure to maternal care is correlated with a reduction in problematic behaviors such as disobedience, defiance, and aggression.[16] Reports have indicated mothers ability to foster a more stable and nurturing home environment than their non-maternal care-taking counterparts.

Maternal health[edit]

Postpartum employment, which inadequate maternity leave may promote, is heavily correlated with both physiological and psychological health issues. These health complications result from the difficulty of balancing a time-intensive job with a similarly time-intensive child rearing process. Many mothers may devote all their time to these two tasks to the point that they ignore their own health. The stress of maintaining this balance has also been shown to weaken their immune systems and interact poorly with their psychological state.[17] For instance, postpartum mothers may compromise their physical health if they remain in the workforce. Studies have indicated an increased risk of respiratory infections, breast symptoms and gynecologic problems for employed mothers. Likewise, an early return to work has also been linked with numerous psychological conditions for the mothers, most notably depression. The occurrence of these symptoms though can be reduced by an average of 5-10% with each incremental increase in maternity leave length.[18]


Economic efficiency[edit]

Mandatory maternity leave imposes two sets of costs on affected corporations. Firstly, employers must continue financing the women's health insurance[dubious ] coverage during her leave which often proves to be a costly endeavor. Moreover, they must also replace the women's labor productivity by finding and training substitute employees. A recent study by the American Management Association concluded that corporations incurred approximately $220 per year in 1993, not adjusted for inflation, for each woman using leave.[19] Secondly, the enforcement of maternity leave legislation also increases the likelihood of women exiting the workforce altogether. During their work absence, they may recognize the importance of care taking and thus decide to remain at home beyond the designated length of their maternity leave. This represents a loss in human capital as valuable workers withdraw from the labor market who otherwise may have remained. After experiencing a precipitous increase from 46% in 1980 to 65.4% by 1995, the labor force participation rate of women with children under the age of six began declining down to 61.2% in 2003 following the introduction of FMLA.[20]

Many of these extra costs are ultimately passed on to female employees in the form of lower pay and fewer advancement opportunities. Studies have demonstrated that these policies may potentially produce negative pay effects in the aggregate for women.[21] Employers are forced to reduce wages to compensate for expected long-term costs from childbirth among women. Maternity leave also may inhibit the woman's career trajectory and promotion prospects. The extended period of absence that such policies awards often reduce a women's economic status and opportunities.[22] During this hiatus, their job skills and experiences may deteriorate thus limiting their potential advancement.

Motherhood penalty[edit]

US - women's earnings as a percentage of men's in 2008 by age group

Available maternity leave options may also help lower the impact of children on career advancement, or the motherhood penalty. There currently exists a "family gap" between the pay of mothers' and nonmothers'. In the United States prior to the passage of the FMLA, mothers typically earned 70% of men's wages while nonmothers earned 90%.[7] These earning disparities partially stemmed from insecure employment return prospects. Women without maternity leave protection were often forced to start over with a new employer following their absence.[23] This interrupted their career progression and burdened them with the additional task of seeking new employment. Such factors ultimately impeded equitable access to income and career opportunities. Women as a group notably experience increasing income inequality as they age illustrating the impact of motherhood on their wage prospects. However, the implementation of FMLA addressed some of these impediments through the introduction of mandatory maternity leave. Mothers now are more likely to return to their previous employer due to this increased legal protection.[8] The policy minimizes some of the negative externalities of motherhood by maintaining women's employment options even following maternity leave. Many policy experts though suspect that the remaining gender imbalance is largely attributable to the dearth of paid leave options.[7]


Access equality[edit]

American family policy perpetuates inequalities as many low-income women lack access to maternity leave. Under the current FMLA system, approximately 40% of United States workers are ineligible for benefits due to the brevity of their tenure or the smallness of their firm.[3] These excluded populations are often low-waged and minority women thus furthering their already present disadvantage. Moreover, the unpaid aspect of the current policy limits access to those who are economically well off. The United States Department of Labor reported that over a 22 month period in 1999 and 2000, 3.5 million people needed leave but were unable to take it due to affordability concerns.[24] The lack of monetary compensation hinders underprivileged women's ability to balance employment with their family life.

Foreign comparison[edit]

Mandated maternity leave by country in 2008

The United States maternity leave policy is distinct for its relative scarcity of benefits in comparison to other industrialized countries. It notably embraces a neoliberal ideology emphasizing free markets and the deregulation of corporations. Thus, the legislation imposes relatively few restrictions on American firms and instead underscores employer discretion in the shaping of maternity leave policy. These firms are thus free to offer maternity leave policies on terms that more align with corporate interests.[3] This United States policy differs greatly from most other advanced countries in terms maternity leave provision.

These stark maternity leave differentials are demonstrated in both the policy's length and compensation. In terms of the length of protected maternity leave, the United States currently ranks 20th out of the 21 high-income countries.[3] American policy stands in sharp contrast to some European policies, such as France, which guarantee protection for over 300 weeks or approximately six years. Moreover, most foreign wealthy nations provide some form of wage compensation for the leave of absence. The United States is the only one of these 21 countries that does not offer such paid leave.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Maternity leave". World English Dictionary. 
  2. ^ Baker, Michael; Kevin Milligan (2008). "How Does Job-Protected Maternity Leave Affect Mothers' Employment?". Journal of Labor Economics 26 (4): 655–691. doi:10.1086/591955. 
  3. ^ a b c d e Gornick, Janet; Rebecca Ray and John Schmitt (2008). "Parental Leave in 21 Countries: Assessing Generosity and Gender Equality". Center for Economic and Policy Research. 
  4. ^ O'Connell, M.; B. Downs and K. Smith (2001). "Maternity Leave and Employment Patterns: 1961-1995". Current Population Reports 70 (79): 1–21. 
  5. ^ a b Berger, L.; J. Waldfogel (2004). "Maternity Leave and the Employment of New Mothers in the United States". Journal of Population Economics 17 (2): 331–349. doi:10.1007/s00148-003-0159-9. 
  6. ^ Tanaka, S. (2005). "Parental Leave and Child Health Across OECD Countries". The Economic Journal 115 (501): 7–28. doi:10.1111/j.0013-0133.2005.00970.x. 
  7. ^ a b c Waldfogel, J. (1998). "The Family Gap for Young Women in the United States and Britain: Can Maternity Leave Make a Difference?". Journal of Labor Economics 16 (3): 505–545. doi:10.1086/209897. 
  8. ^ a b Curtin, S.; S. Hofferth (2006). "Parental Leave Statutes and Maternal Return to Work After Childbirth in the United States". Work and Occupations 33 (1): 73–105. doi:10.1177/0730888405281889. 
  9. ^ a b "Expecting Better: A State-by-State Analysis of Laws that Help New Parents". National Partnership for Women and Families. 2012. 
  10. ^ Bracey, P.; C. Winegarden (1995). "Demographic consequences of maternal-leave pro- grams in industrial countries: evidence from fixed effects models". Southern Economic Journal 61 (4): 1020–1035. doi:10.2307/1060738. 
  11. ^ Fein, S.; B. Roe, M. Teisl & L. Whittington (1999). "‘Is There Competition between Breast-feeding and Maternal Employment?". Demography 36 (2): 157–172. doi:10.2307/2648105. 
  12. ^ Baker, M.; K. Milligan (2008). "Maternal Employment, Breastfeeding and Health: Evidence from Maternity Leave Mandates". Journal of Health Economics 27 (4): 871–887. doi:10.1016/j.jhealeco.2008.02.006. 
  13. ^ Ruhm, C. (2004). "Parental Employment and Child Cognitive Development". Journal of Human Resources 39 (1): 155–192. doi:10.2307/3559009. 
  14. ^ Baker, M.; K. Milligan (2010). "Evidence from Maternity Leave Expansions of the Impact of Maternal Care on Early Child Development". Journal of Human Resources 45 (1): 1–32. doi:10.1353/jhr.2010.0007. 
  15. ^ Brooks-Gunn, J.; W. Han & J. Waldfogel (2002). "Maternal Employment and Child Cognitive Outcomes in the First Three Years of Life: the NICHD Study of Early Child Care". Child Development 73 (4): 1052–1072. doi:10.1111/1467-8624.00457. 
  16. ^ Belsky, J. (2001). "Developmental Risk (Still) Associated with Early Child Care". Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 42: 845–860. doi:10.1111/1469-7610.00782. 
  17. ^ Chatterji, P.; S. Markowitz (2004). "Does the Length of Maternity Leave affect Maternal Health?". National Bureau of Economic Research. 
  18. ^ Chaloner, K.; D. Froberg, D. Gjerdingen & P. McGovern (1995). "Women's Postpartum Maternity Benefits and Work Experience". Family Medicine 27: 592–598. 
  19. ^ Matthes, K. (1993). "The Family and Medical Leave Act: Rights, Responsibilities, and Recourse for Employers and Employees". Human Resources Focus. 
  20. ^ Goodpaster, N. (2010). "Leaves and Leaving: The Family and Medical Leave Act and the Decline in Maternal Labor Force Participation". The B.E. Journal of Economic Analysis & Policy 10 (1). 
  21. ^ Waldfogel, J. (1997). "The Effects of Children on Women’s Wages.’’". American Sociological Review: 209–217. 
  22. ^ Schwartz, F. (1989). "Management Women and the New Facts of Life". Harvard Business Review 23 (1): 65–76. 
  23. ^ Lazear, E. (1981). "Agency, Earnings Profiles, Productivity, and Hours Restrictions". American Economic Review: 606–620. 
  24. ^ United States Department of Labor (2000). "Balancing the Needs of Families and Employees: FMLA Survey Report".