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Blog Insight & Commentary

The Messy Reality of American Maternity Leave Policy

How America does (and, often, doesn’t) take care of its new moms

Deborah Hill
Contributor

Earlier this year, the U.S. made international news as the only developed world country that refuses to mandate paid time off for new mothers. Countries such as Latvia, Finland, and neighboring Mexico offer new parents paid leave of absence during what is often a period of acute financial need, while the U.S. mandates only unpaid leave. One Washington Post editorial pointedly condemns the stingy shortsightedness of our national family leave policies.

My two sons, aged 21 and 22, both graduated (debt-free, yeah!) from college in May. As we celebrated the start of the next phase in their lives, I quietly reveled in thoughts of my own new life stage. My paycheck was finally just mine again. Raising kids is a funny, hectic, and expensive experience — emphasis on expensive.

I was fortunate to work for a supportive woman boss when I had my boys. She even hired me while I was pregnant. When my oldest was born, I took six weeks off before heading back to work. When my second child was born, a mere 13 months later, I took three months off and then went back to work part-time. My husband and I had not planned to have a second child so quickly, but life happens. Although I had saved enough paid vacation time to cover about half of my first maternity leave financially, for the second, our family income dropped by half.

In many other countries and at some other companies, this would not have been the case for me.

It all depends on the state and company

Maternity (and paternity) leave is a complicated endeavor in America because it is not entirely standardized. The federal policy establishing minimum family leave requirements is called the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA). This legislation defines the family leave benefits employers must offer and who is eligible to receive such benefits. FMLA provides eligible employees with job protection and the option to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to care for a new child (including foster and adoptive children). To be eligible, the employee must have worked for at least 12 months for a company obligated to comply with FMLA.

Unfortunately, only companies with 50 or more employees, public and private elementary and secondary schools, and local, state, and federal agencies are required to follow FMLA requirements, according to the U.S. Department of Labor’s FMLA Fact Sheet .

As a result, women who work for small private companies with fewer than 50 employees may not have the option for 12 weeks of unpaid leave. In that situation, a woman must use accrued vacation or sick leave to recover from childbirth and care for her new baby. What’s more, her job may not be legally protected.

States are allowed to mandate more than the FMLA unpaid leave benefit if they so choose, and all but 12 U.S. states have legislated additional benefits.

In a 2016 analysis of parental leave laws,  the National Partnership for Women and Families graded states on their family-friendly benefits. Examples include paid family leave, paid sick days, job-protected parental leave, flexible use of sick time, pregnancy accommodations and working mothers' nursing rights.

Only California earned an A grade for offering significantly more than federally-required benefits in support of families. The District of Columbia and New York received A- grades. States receiving an F grade are those offering families nothing beyond the minimum federally-required 12 weeks of unpaid leave. F-grade states include Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Idaho, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Nevada, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota and Wyoming.

No matter where businesses operate in the U.S., private companies have the option to offer more generous family leave benefits if they so choose. Many companies recognize that family-friendly policies help them recruit and retain the best and brightest employees. Forbes published a 2017 “heroes” list of the top 100 best companies for working women and families. Large companies like Adobe, Lenovo, Bank of America, and Johnson & Johnson make the cut, but what if you don’t work for one of these companies?

At InHerSight, women rate employers’ female-friendliness based on several criteria, one of which is maternity & adoptive leave. If you’re seeking a positions with high ratings , you can browse current job postings or get matched to a job that aligns with your priorities.

The variability of benefits for expectant mothers and fathers means you have some homework to do, and there may be room to negotiate.

The importance of knowing your benefits

If you’re planning to start or expand your family, don’t ditch the birth control until you fully understand the benefits you’re entitled to receive through your employer. It's essential to your physical and emotional wellbeing to know how your company can support you during your pregnancy, immediately after your child is born, and throughout your child's life. Schedule a consultation with your benefits coordinator and talk through your options.

Affording Your Maternity Leave: Some companies may allow you to exhaust any accrued sick leave before dipping into any vacation hours you have saved up. Colleagues may also be able to donate their vacation or sick leave hours to your bank to help you maintain your income during maternity leave.

Some companies offer short-term disability insurance that can replace most if not all salary during your maternity leave.

It’s also an unfortunate reality that not all pregnancies and deliveries go smoothly, and unplanned medical complications could keep you out of the office. Ask about both short-term and long-term disability insurance options.

Returning to Work: Depending on your desire (and need) to work full time, ask about options to gradually transition back to work — slowly increasing work hours back to full-time responsibilities. Some companies are willing to allow women to job share to provide greater flexibility for childcare. Once you return to work, determine how you’ll handle doctor visits and those inevitable days when you must stay home with your little ones. Is it possible to telecommute, and if so, how is that negotiated?

Accommodations: If you intend to breastfeed, ask about lactation rooms or other support for nursing mothers. The Patient Protection & Affordable Care Act may provide you with "right to pump" work accommodations, as it mandates that women be allowed to take reasonable break time and use a private place to express breast milk for one year after giving birth. However, the regulation only applies to employees classified as “non-exempt,” meaning you are paid hourly or are eligible for overtime.

That said, many companies recognize the value of supporting nursing employees and providing lactation rooms — but such accommodation is not federally mandated. Here again, states have the discretion to require more generous nursing mother accommodations. State-by-state workplace breastfeeding laws can be found here .

Maternity leave after the birth of your bundle of joy is just the start of your parenting journey. Get informed about all benefit options so you can take care of yourself and your baby in the best way possible.

By Deborah Hill

Deborah Hill is a writer, communications strategist, and anthropologist who is fascinated by the ways humans and businesses interact.

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