A Beginners Guide to Maternity Leave Laws

Get the answers to the top maternity leave law questions

Pregnant businesswoman working in office
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In the United States, maternity leave laws can be confusing. Some states have awesome maternity leave laws and some do not. Some companies offer outstanding maternity leave and others offer nothing.

How Long Can You Legally Take Maternity Leave?

The short answer is that, according to U.S. law, you can take 12 weeks of leave.

Here's the long answer with the facts. In 1993, President Bill Clinton passed the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) which protects the job of any worker who takes time away from work due to a serious illness, a sick family member, or to care for a newborn, adopted, or foster child.

The law says if you have worked for your company for 12 months and at least 1,250 hours, and the company has 50 or more employees within 75 miles, you may take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave within a 12-month period under certain circumstances. 

How Long Is the Average Maternity Leave?

Your doctor will say your body needs 6 weeks to recover from childbirth and 8 weeks if you had a c-section. FMLA will protect your job for 12 weeks, but (and that's a big "but") the time is unpaid. So, the real question is how long can you afford to take an unpaid leave?

Your choice may come down to money. If your company allows you to use sick time, vacation time, personal time, and also offers short-term disability, you may be paid for some of your leave. If you're pregnant, now is the time to start crunching the numbers.

Just as there is no average pregnancy, there is no average maternity leave. You have many options you need to investigate. Then you'll decide the right length of time you can afford.

How Does Short-Term Disability Work for Maternity Leave?

Short-term disability (STD) will offer you 6 weeks pay for a normal childbirth and 8 weeks for a c-section. The rest of your maternity leave will be unpaid and job-protected with FMLA if you work for a qualifying company. Short-term disability typically covers 60% of your paycheck. Check with your HR manager for the details.

STD doesn't start paying out right away. First, there's an "elimination period," in which the insurance company confirms your disability. Your disability is that you gave birth to a child. You'll need to account for this unpaid time in your budget if you'll have bills due while waiting.

Which States Offer Paid Maternity (Family) Leave?

Of the 50 United States, only four offer a paid maternity leave. They are California, New Jersey, New York, and Rhode Island. A paid universal family leave was passed in the state of Washington and takes effect at the start of 2020. Washington, D.C., meanwhile, adopted a program that begins July 1, 2020.

Do You Get Paid When You Are on Maternity Leave?

If you live in the United States, you do not get paid by the federal government while on maternity leave. Various proposals have been floated to grant fathers and mothers 6 weeks of paid leave.

The Family and Medical Insurance leave (FMLI) or FAMILY Act  was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives in 2013, but has not been enacted. The Act proposes guaranteed paid maternity leave, something many other nations already offer. Meanwhile, the National Conference of State Legislatures monitors state maternity leave laws. While less than a third of the states have them, many are working on some family-friendly workplace laws.


U.S. Labor Department

The National Conference of State Legislatures.