Maternity leave in the United States

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Maternity leave in the United States is regulated by US labor law. For the majority of US workers there is no right to paid or unpaid leave to care for a new child or recover from childbirth. The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (FMLA) requires 12 weeks of unpaid leave annually for mothers of newborn or newly adopted children if they work for a company with 50 or more employees.

This is one of the lowest levels of leave in the industrialized world.[citation needed] In comparison to other countries, the United States is one of the only countries in the world, and the only OECD member, that has not passed laws requiring business and corporations to offer paid maternity leave to their employees.[1]


Between 1961 and 1965, only 14% of mothers participated in the workforce within 6 months of their child's birth.[2]

Prior to the enactment of FMLA legislation in 1993, maternity leave coverage was governed by state law, collective bargaining agreements and employer policies.[3] 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.[4] 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.[3] 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.[5] 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 legislation[edit]

Federal legislation[edit]

The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (or FMLA), signed into law during President Bill Clinton's first term, mandates a minimum of 12 weeks unpaid leave to mothers for the purpose of attending to a newborn or newly adopted child.[6] However, the act does not attain universal coverage as it includes 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. As of 2012, 59% of American employees were eligible under the FMLA.[7]

The FMLA is the only law that addresses family leave. Two other Federal laws, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act and the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act's amendment of the Fair Labor Standards Act, provide some additional protection for parents on the birth of a child.[8]

State legislation[edit]

Many states have supplemented these federal regulations and provided more extensive maternity leave benefits, including expanding paid or flexible sick time, expanding access for workers in smaller companies or with less time on the job, right to pump that expands on federal law, and pregnancy accommodations.[8]

As of 2016, 12 states have enacted no additional laws or programs to support family leave before or after birth.[8] Fourteen 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. 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 Rhode Island for instance, operate programs that require private-sector employers to pay their employees who utilize maternity leave at partial replacement rates.[9] New York passed paid family leave legislation, which includes maternity leave, in 2016 — starting off at 8 weeks and 50% of pay in 2018, and reaching 12 weeks and 67% of pay in 2021.[10]

Washington state passed a paid family leave bill in 2007, but it lacked a funding mechanism and has not yet gone into effect. Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia designate childbirth as a temporary disability thus guaranteeing mothers paid maternity leave through Disability Insurance (TDI) provisions.[11]

Other federal policies[edit]

The Department of Defense has regulated the amount of maternity leave a military member can take. Before February 5, 2016 the leave was six weeks long for active duty members or reservists who had previously done twelve months of active duty time.[12][13] On January 28, 2016, the Defense Secretary, Ashton Carter, increased the paid maternity leave to twelve weeks for all branches.[13] Traditional reservists, however, are given an eighty-four-day excusal, not leave.[14]

In the United States Air Force AFI36-3003, it states that the maternity leave starts after being released from the hospital from giving birth, as also defined for other branches. "Shared benefits" can be created if both parents are active Air Force members.[15] Therefore, a sum of up to twelve weeks can be taken by one parent or distributed amongst the two parents. However, two married active duty members cannot create "shared benefits" in the Army, according to the Army Directive 2016-09 (Maternity Leave Policy).[14]

There was a stance by the previous Secretary of the Navy, Ray Mabus, to increase the maternity leave from six to eighteen weeks for the Navy and Marine Corps beginning on July 2, 2015.[16] It was implemented until January 28, 2016, however, it remained eighteen weeks for those who were pregnant previous to and on March 3, 2016.[17]

It was a significant leap to go from six to twelve weeks of maternity leave. Other benefits have also been increased to improve the lives of those with newborn or newly adopted children. These benefits include an increase of child care hours to fourteen hours a day, and allowing active duty members more ability to family plan by paying for the sperm and egg freezing.[13] These decisions were made by the previous Defense Secretary "in an effort to support military families, improve retention and strengthen the force of the future."[13]

Impacts of United States maternity leave[edit]


Child health and development[edit]

Studies assert that an additional week of maternity leave among industrialized countries reduces infant mortality rates by 0.5 deaths per 1,000 live births.[18][19] There is also a positive correlation between maternal leave and the duration of breast-feeding.[20] Mothers who are not engaged in employment may be more able to participate in consistent breast-feeding; babies who are breastfed may be less likely to get a variety of infections and are also at a lower risk for asthma, obesity, and infant death syndrome.[21] Research suggests that breast-feeding has the ability to yield substantial health improvements in disease prevention and immune system build-up.[22] Moreover, further evidence indicates 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.[23]

Maternal health[edit]

The medical definition of postpartum is the time frame between childbirth and the return of the mother's reproductive organs to their non pregnant state.[24] For women that return to work during this postpartum period, the stress of maintaining a balance between their professional and parenting responsibilities has been shown to weaken their immune systems and interact poorly with their psychological state.[25]

Impact of depression[edit]

Depression is a condition with both mental and physical side effects and can be very debilitating depending on the severity. The risk factors vary from person to person and women are typically diagnosed with depression more than men. Other than trauma, physical illness, certain personality traits, and previous family history, pregnancy can be a cause of depression in women. Symptoms of this include, loss of interest in activities, difficulty focusing, thinking, making decisions, and remembering things, anxiety, irritation, slowed speaking, physical pains, and feelings of sadness and worthlessness.[26] Any combination of these symptoms makes simple tasks seem daunting and almost impossible. Women who just gave birth are already managing recovering from the severe physical symptoms while taking care of a newborn child and adding symptoms of depression to this mixture can be a huge burden on them. When these new mothers go back to work they have the added stress of worrying about their child and balancing their family and work roles. Mothers who return to work soon after a birth of a child are likely to get depressed than other mothers; therefore, longer paid maternity leave has the potential to help new mothers. Women will have more time to recover from giving birth both mentally and physically, which can help prevent the onset of depression.


Economic efficiency[edit]

Four states currently offer paid family leave: California, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Rhode Island.[27] In New Jersey, women who took paid leave in the year after giving birth were 40% less likely to receive public aid or food stamps.[28] According to a California-based study, 87% of employers reported that the paid leave requirement did not increase costs; 9% note that it saved money due to decreased turnover and other costs.[29]

Though the overall labor force participation has declined since the year 2000,[30] some economists argue that paid maternity leave in California has increased labor force participation among mothers.[31] Mothers who receive paid maternity leave may be more likely to return to employment later, and then work more hours and earn higher wages.[32]

Less favorable maternity leave policies may inhibit a woman's career trajectory and promotion prospects. The extended period of absence of such policies often reduce a women's economic status and opportunities.[33] 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%.[5] 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.[34] 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.[6] 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.[5] Women who worked for companies that provided paid maternity leave before they gave birth are more likely to take such leave for up to 12 weeks, and more likely to return to work more quickly thereafter.[35]


Access equality[edit]

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.[9] 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.[36] The lack of monetary compensation may hinder the ability of women who are not as financially secure as others to balance employment with their family life.

Paternity leave[edit]

California is the first state to offer paid paternity leave weeks (six weeks, partial payment). New Jersey, Rhode Island,[37] and New York[38] since passed laws for paid family leave. In the rest of the US, paternity pay weeks are not offered (therefore neither paternity paid leave weeks), but fathers have access to unpaid paternity leave to care for their newborns (without new income).[37][39] Often, fathers will take sick days or vacation time when they have newborns. There is also a growing number of fathers that go unpaid. Some employers are required by law to allow 12 weeks of unpaid family leave after the birth or adoption of a child. This law is under FMLA or Family Medical Leave Act.[37] Fathers who have access to paid paternity leave give mothers the opportunity to engage in paid work, with a positive effect on female labor force participation and wages.[40]

The United States military branches also show a minimal paternity leave. Although some branches give more time after the birth to take the leave, all branches give ten days. This type of leave is applicable to those who are married.[41]

Longer paternity leave increases the father's engagement with a child, which leads to the child's improved cognitive and mental health outcomes and fewer behavior problems.[40]

Foreign comparison[edit]

The United States maternity leave policy is distinct for its relative scarcity of benefits in comparison to other industrialized countries. 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 are more aligned with corporate interests.[9] This United States policy differs greatly from most other western countries in terms of 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 highest-income countries.[9] The United States is one of three countries, along with Oman and Papua New Guinea, that do not offer paid maternity leave. Countries that offer paid maternity leave include Mexico (12 weeks), United Kingdom (40 weeks), India (26 weeks), Chile (24 weeks), Canada (1 year), and China (14 weeks). Although the United States does not guarantee paid maternity leave, employers may provide paid leave if they choose. There are three states in the United States that do provide paid maternity leave and they are California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island.[42]

Mothers usually share baby care with their husbands. Fathers can have paid week leaves if they live in California (partial paid leave). In Slovenia fathers have 12 weeks of 100% paid paternity leave. In Sweden 480 days of 80% paid paternity leave weeks. In Norway 49 weeks of 100% paid paternity leave weeks or 59 weeks of 80% paid paternity leave. Finnish fathers have 11 partial paid leave weeks.[39][43]

See also[edit]


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