Maternity Leave Laws

Mary Gormandy White
mother with newborn baby

If you're expecting a child, it's only natural to wonder about maternity leave. Depending on the size of your employer and the state where you live, you may be eligible for several weeks of paid or unpaid leave, or your employer may not be legally required to allow for any leave. Even in cases where leave is not mandated, employers often allow new parents to take some time off from work as a matter of policy.

Federal Law: Family and Medical Leave Act

In the United States, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) sets the minimum standard for maternity leave. Regarding leave for new parents, FMLA requires employers to provide both parents up to twelve unpaid work weeks per twelve-month period for the birth and care of a new baby and placement and care of a newly adopted child or of a foster child.

Covered Employers

This federal law applies to private employers that have 50 or more employees within a 75 mile radius of the site where the requesting worker is employed. It applies to local and state governments and both public and private schools regardless of size.

Eligibility

People who work for a covered employer are eligible for leave if they have been employed by the organization for at least a total of 12 months within the last 7 years, putting in at least 1,250 hours in the last 12 months.

In a situation where both parents are employed by the company, the employer may opt to have a policy requiring that the mother and father split the 12 weeks, taking a total of 12 weeks off between the two of them rather than allowing a full 12 weeks for both employees.

Compensation

FMLA does not require employers to pay employees while they are on maternity leave. However, employers often require a worker to use sick leave or vacation time concurrently with leave, a practice that can result in employee compensation during some of the leave period. Some disability insurance policies provide coverage for leave following childbirth for new mothers.

Requesting Leave

You must notify your employer at least 30 days in advance if you need FMLA leave. If that's not practical (for example, if your baby is premature), you must tell your employer as soon as possible. Visit the Compliance Assistance portion of the FMLA web site or contact the Department of Labor to make sure you're following the rules.

Intent to Return to Work

FMLA is job protection coverage for those who intend to return to work after becoming new parents. Individuals who give employers unequivocal notice that they do not intend to come back to work are not protected by this law.

If FMLA Leave Is Denied

If you qualify for maternity leave and your employer refuses to grant it, you can file a complaint. For FMLA violations, you have two years from the date of the violation to file the complaint. If you can prove your employer's action was willful, you have three years to file.

Complaints may be filed with the U. S. Department of Labor. If your complaint is valid, the Department of Labor will usually negotiate with your employer to obtain leave for you.

State-Specific Laws About Maternity

FMLA applies in all states. Some states have passed additional maternity leave legislation that goes beyond the federal requirements. Depending on the state, these laws may extend to employers too small to be covered under FMLA, or may provide for compensation or additional time off.

The legal environment changes frequently, so check with the Department of Labor in your state to verify exactly what laws may apply in your situation. Examples of states that have maternity leave laws or state-specific medical leave laws that include time off for childbirth include:

Discuss Options with Your Employer

While it's important to educate yourself about the Family Medical Leave Act and any state laws that may apply in your situation, it's also critical to discuss your options with your employer early in your pregnancy. As soon as you find out you are pregnant, find out what legal requirements apply to your situation and review your company's policies, then speak with your company's human resources representative. Even if there isn't a law that mandates maternity leave in your situation, your employer may be willing to work with you.

Maternity Leave Laws