After reading Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg, I’m feeling particularly empowered and incredibly driven. If you haven’t read this book yet, I recommend it to any young woman (or man for that matter), just starting out in her career. In it, you’ll find a variety of dos and don’ts not only for the workplace, but also for at home (example: be weary of taking on the housewife role when you first start dating someone; it may turn into 1955 real fast). And on that same note of feeling like a powerful woman in the workforce after reading this book, I came across this Huffington Post article about how the United States is the only developed country without a paid maternity leave. Apparently this is a hot topic right now, so I dug a little deeper and did some research.
To be clear, I’m talking about a federal law requiring private companies to do something. In this case, a federal law requiring private companies to offer paid maternity leave to its employees. Many states have state laws that protect and provide for maternity leave in ways that expand on the current federal law. But the current debate is over the federal law.
Given the congressional split on the issue (typically, republicans against the law and democrats in favor of it), it’s been at a standstill for some time. Recently, it’s gained more traction, and this Huffington Post article claims there’s a push by the U.S. Labor Department to get a federal paid leave law on the books.
This got me thinking about paid maternity leave for young, professional women. And although I don’t have kids, I am really interested in this topic because one day I want to have kids. Here’s what I learned in my research.
What is maternity leave?
Maternity leave is a term of absence from work in order to have a baby and take care of a baby. It’s a broad term that includes both pregnancy disability leave and parental leave to care for a new baby. The former being medical leave, the latter being family leave. Maternity leave applies only to pregnant women and adoptive mothers.
Maternity Leave in the United States
Maternity leave in the United States is governed by the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (FMLA), which is a federal law. States vary on how they expand on this law, but at a minimum states have to abide by the restrictions of FMLA. They can, of course, enact their own laws that expand on FMLA and offer more protections (they just can’t offer less).
Below is a list of maternity law facts in the U.S. You’ll see what FMLA offers, in addition to a few examples of how states have expanded on the law. You can find what your state does here.
Current Federal and State Law
- Under FMLA (i.e., under federal law), companies with 50 or more employees must offer 12 weeks of unpaid leave to employees who have worked there for at least 12 months.
- States must comply with FMLA, but they may enact and expand on the law, giving more protections (they just can’t give less).
- States that have their own maternity leave laws include: California, Connecticut, D.C., Hawaii, Maine, Minnesota, New Jersey, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington and Wisconsin. Most of these states either 1) expanded the amount of leave available or 2) expand the classes of persons for whom leave may be taken. More on that here.
- California, New Jersey, and Road Island are the only three states that have paid family leave.
- Several states don’t expand on private companies, but do on state agencies. For example, Ohio does not expand on the federal rights of those who work in the private sector, but it does for those in the public sector. Public sector workers are entitled to up to six weeks of paid leave at 70% of their salary. Source.
- The United States is the only developed country without a paid maternity leave. For a chart showing the United States versus other countries, go here (spoiler alert: we’re last).
- Also of note, only 16% of U.S. companies offer paid maternity leave.
The argument for a federal law requiring companies to offer paid maternity leave
The biggest argument in favor of a federal law mandating paid maternity leave in the U.S. is to allow mothers to take time off work without suffering financially. Many cannot afford to take unpaid leave and do not benefit from FMLA at all. Low income families are hit hard by this because they cannot afford to take time off without pay. Polls consistently show widespread support for a paid leave law. However, politicians haven’t been able to get it done.
The argument against a federal paid maternity leave law
The argument against a federal law requiring paid maternity leave by private companies is that it will cost companies a lot more money in terms of employee benefits. Additionally, it’s another federal law that expands on the federal government.