What Is Maternity Leave?

Maternity leave is the time, either paid or unpaid, that a new mother takes off work after the birth or adoption of a child. Building a good maternity leave policy provides numerous physical and mental benefits for employees. For employers, offering maternity leave can help better retain and engage their workforce.

What Is Maternity Leave and Why Is it Important?

Maternity leave is the period of time a new mother takes off work after the birth or adoption of a child. Many companies also offer paternity leave for fathers of new babies or family or parental leave for both parents.

Paid maternity leave is a major consideration for employees when choosing an employer. Research shows that offering paid maternity leave increases employee engagement, employee health and wellness, and the ability to attract and retain talent.

Maternity leave is vital to new mothers because it allows them time to physically heal from the tolls of pregnancy and childbirth and bond with their new baby. Research has found numerous benefits to taking time off after the birth of a baby, including a stronger connection between mother and baby, lower infant mortality rates, and overall improved postpartum mental health. Mothers taking maternity leave are also more likely to work for the same company a year later.

Do Employers Have to Offer Paid Maternity Leave?

Unlike many other countries, the United States doesn’t have a national paid family leave policy, which means an employer’s benefits package determines the length of the leave and whether it is paid or unpaid. However, a small group of states uses employee-paid payroll taxes to fund guaranteed paid maternity leave.

Companies aren’t required to offer paid maternity leave, but an increasing number of employers are adding it to their benefits packages. Currently, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics:

The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) guarantees 12 weeks of unpaid leave and job protection after the birth or adoption of a child, meaning a mother is guaranteed to keep her job after she returns from unpaid maternity leave. However, the FMLA is limited to employees who have been with the company for at least 12 months and companies with at least 50 employees, among other caveats. Currently, only an estimated 60 percent of American employees qualify for FMLA.

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Can Short-Term Disability Insurance Help Pay for Maternity Leave?

Employees with limited or no paid maternity leave often have the option to use their vacation time, sick leave, or personal days to extend their paid maternity leave. Some employers require employees to use their paid time off before accessing unpaid maternity leave benefits. Many employees also opt for short-term disability insurance, which pays between 50 percent and 100 percent of a mother’s salary as she recovers from childbirth.

What Does It Mean to Go on Maternity Leave?

A new mother goes on maternity leave after the birth or adoption of a child. During that time, she takes a leave of absence and isn’t expected to work or communicate with her employer. After a mother’s maternity leave is complete, she is guaranteed to have her job or a similar job to return to.

Most employers allow mothers to choose when they take maternity leave, often within the first 12 months of a baby’s life or after an adoption. Some new mothers choose to start their maternity leave close to their due date, while others wait until after the baby is born or the adoption is completed.

Maternity leave can range from just a few days to a full year, depending on the employee’s benefits and financial situation. In the U.S., most mothers return to work an average of 10 weeks after having a baby.

Other factors that go into a mother’s decision of the length of her maternity leave include:

New mothers who return to work too soon after their baby is born can end up distracted and disengaged from their work. Providing enough paid maternity leave allows women to take the needed time off, so they can come back in good physical and mental health, prepared to fully and equally participate in their organizations.