How Long Is Maternity Leave? HR FAQs for New Parents

Balancing career and family is a feat working parents handle daily, but a solid support system can make all the difference—especially as your family grows. This is where maternity leave (or family leave) comes in. For instance, Australia revamped its paid family leave system, promoting greater security and equity in its workforce. While the US still lacks universal paid leave, many states and private companies have crafted their own.

Maternity leave is an excellent time to rest and bond with the new baby, and research also shows this short break is pivotal in the mental and physical wellbeing of the parent and child. Partnering with your employer to figure out what maternity leave programs are available can help you navigate this milestone with as little stress as possible.

Keep in mind that it's never too early to start planning. After all, maternity leave can begin before the baby arrives. You'll need time to familiarize yourself with maternity leave laws, reassign your responsibilities, decide how much maternity leave to take, and more.

Whether you're curious for yourself or looking to set up a parental leave policy for your employees, read on to learn more about maternity leave in the US, how much it pays, and how to maximize your time off. BambooHR even has benefits administration tools to help your organization support its employees with perks that reach beyond the workplace.

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How Long Is Maternity Leave in the United States?

Currently, no US federal law guarantees every employee the right to maternity leave. The choice to offer maternity benefits is largely left up to individual states and businesses. This means your eligibility for time off and how long it lasts depends on several factors, like where you live, your employment status, and your company's PTO policy.

Is FMLA the Same as Maternity Leave?

The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) isn't the same as maternity leave, but it's designed to help. FMLA is a federal law that requires businesses to grant eligible employees unpaid, job-protective leave in certain situations. This law only applies if you qualify and work for one of the following FMLA-covered employers:

As a new parent, you can take up to 12 workweeks off for the birth, adoption, or foster placement of a child. This includes any period before or after childbirth if you can't work for health reasons, such as severe morning sickness, bed rest, prenatal care, or stillbirth.

Does an Employer Have to Hold Your Job for Maternity Leave?

If you're taking FMLA-covered maternity leave, your employer must hold your job. So, you can expect to return to the same position (or an identical one) in the same location with the same pay, benefits, and working conditions you had before. The law also states that your employer must continue your group health plan coverage while you're out.

Who Pays for Maternity Leave?

Maternity leave may be paid for by a company or state family leave program. Some employees are covered by a short-term disability insurance policy they've enrolled in through their employer or purchased separately. It may also be paid for, in part, by the employee's accrued PTO.

Although federal law doesn't require employers to pay for maternity leave, some organizations offer it as a voluntary benefit—but not many. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), only 27% of private industry workers had access to paid family leave in 2023.

Several states run family leave insurance programs, which pay cash benefits for eligible workers on maternity leave. In these areas, the employees, employers, or both pay into the system through payroll taxes. When the employee needs to use their benefits, they submit a claim and the program pays them directly.

How Much Does Maternity Leave Pay?

The amount of maternity pay workers receive depends on the company or program. The average benefit amount for state-funded maternity leave ranges from $170 to $1,620 per week. Alternatively, short-term disability policies typically pay between 40% and 100% of an employee's salary.

States with Paid Family Leave Policies

Only nine states have paid family leave programs, but five more are in the works. As of September 2023, the following states have active leave insurance programs:

These five states have pending paid leave programs:

The duration of these state leave programs ranges from 12 and 52 weeks, and many programs offer separate family leave and medical leave entitlements. For instance, workers in California are eligible for up to 52 weeks of disability insurance and up to eight weeks of paid family leave benefits. But in certain cases, an employee may be eligible for both.

Can You Get Unemployment While on Maternity Leave?

Workers who've lost their jobs may apply for unemployment insurance benefits. If you happen to be on maternity leave when you lose your job, this doesn't affect the eligibility requirements to collect unemployment—you still have to prove you've been let go through no fault of your own and are ready, willing, and able to work.

In the wake of recent tech layoffs, many employees on medical and parental leave found themselves in this very situation. While it's not ideal, it's possible for companies to lay off workers on maternity leave, as long as the reason they're let go isn't related to their approved, protected absence.

Federal Laws Protecting Expecting Parents

Keep in mind that an employer can't fire you—or refuse to hire you—for pregnancy-related reasons. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) enforces federal laws that protect against harassment and discrimination in the workplace, which includes unfair hiring, firing, compensation, promotion, and training practices against employees who are pregnant.

To learn more, visit the US Department of Labor (DOL).

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When to Go on Maternity Leave

Your maternity leave start date may depend on the type of work you do, your child's health status, how much discomfort you're in while pregnant, and other factors. According to the American Pregnancy Association, most people take leave a week to a month before their due date.

However, some people work right up to the birth of their child. While this can certainly help maximize the quality time you'll have together, it's also important to consider the time it'll take to prepare for your biological or adoptive child's arrival at home.

Keep in mind that FMLA requires employees to give at least 30 days notice and your company policy or state program may have similar rules.

Postpartum Recovery Timeline

Even though they're away from work, maternity leave is by no means a vacation for birthing parents. While planning how much time to take, consider how long you'll need to recover from childbirth. Here's a quick overview of the average postpartum recovery timeline from the Cleveland Clinic:

Your postpartum recovery timeline will likely be longer and include different milestones if you've had a cesarean delivery (C-section).

Taking Extended Maternity Leave

Considering the recovery process for birthing parents or the time it takes to bond with an adoptive child, paid or unpaid parental leave may not feel like enough time for every family. Here are some creative ways to extend maternity leave:

Save Your PTO

Many parents strategically save their available sick, personal, or vacation days to use during maternity leave. This is especially helpful for employees with access to only a short amount of time off. In many instances, employees combine PTO with unpaid FMLA leave to better support themselves financially.

Rely on Your Nest Eggs

Another way to cover your income during maternity leave is to build up your savings leading up to the arrival of your child. This could mean tightening your household budget, borrowing from a lender, or clocking more overtime at work. You can also strategically use the pre-tax dollars in your FSA or HSA to offset some of the costs associated with prenatal and postpartum care and parenthood.

Combine Family Leave Benefits

Many private employers offer inclusive policies for new parents. If your partner has access to leave, use it to extend this time for your growing family. For instance, you could take your 14 weeks of maternity leave first, and then your partner can take their 12 weeks of paternity leave, giving your child up to six total months of dedicated time with a parent.

Return Part-Time

Instead of jumping in full force, some parents come back from maternity leave part-time at first. This helps you get in some quality time at home with your child and ease back into working-parent mode. If you only have access to FMLA-protected leave, keep in mind that you don't have to take it all at once. Some people take protected leave in intervals or use it to reduce their schedule (with employer approval).

Talk to HR

Whether or not your company has a defined maternity leave policy, your employer might be able to make special arrangements with you. Of course, this depends on the company and your circumstances, but drafting a plan and talking it over with your HR department may result in a more favorable amount of time off.

Making paid maternity leave or parental leave part of your time-off policy isn't just good for families, it's good for your company. In fact, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) endorses paid family leave as an essential benefit for working parents, linking it to several compelling health benefits, such as lower rates of postpartum depression, child and parent rehospitalization, and more.

From a business standpoint, offering paid leave to support growing families also supports your workforce and a better work-life balance. For example, it can help improve job satisfaction and productivity, and reduce employee absenteeism. Your policy can also help you stand out against competitors as a family-friendly place to work.

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