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The Truth About Maternity Leave in the US

This article by Heather Siu was first published by our friends at

According to a 2019 report by Unicef, as one of the world’s richest countries, the United States is the least family friendly; scoring consistent zeros across the board in providing any form of national paid leave. To put things into perspective, Estonia leads the field with an impressive 85 weeks of leave at full pay for new mothers - yep, you read that right. Back in the US, there are very limited federal protections for family leave and pregnant workers. Let’s break it down and take a look at the legislation. 

The Family and Medical Leave Act

The only federal law in place that offers any form of leave from work is the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). It allows employees to take up to 12 weeks of job-protected, unpaid leave for family and medical reasons. This includes birth, adoption, medical leave, or to care for a sick family member. The act was amended in 2008 to provide special provisions for military families, allowing up to 26 work weeks of unpaid leave to care for a military relative with a qualifying injury or illness. However, to be eligible for FMLA you must:

  • Have been employed with your company for at least 12 months.

  • Have worked at least 1,250 hours during the 12 months (that’s about 104 hours per month, or a little over 24 hours per week) prior to the start of FMLA leave.

  • Work for an employer that has 50 or more employees within a 75-mile radius of your worksite.

FMLA is therefore highly dependent on your employment and not available to everyone who needs it. In fact, a study found that 50.5% of young mothers who applied for FMLA could not qualify, ultimately failing those who need it most. Even those who do qualify for FMLA struggle to take unpaid time off from work. A survey found that 46% of those who were FMLA-eligible and needed it, but did not take it, cited lack of pay as the reason. Despite being eligible, FMLA simply isn’t an option for some families, especially lower income or single-parent households. This results in many workers turning to short-term disability benefits as an alternative to FMLA.

Short-Term Disability

A short-term disability (STD) plan covers similar personal illnesses or injuries that prevent you from returning to work. Unlike FMLA, leave under STD offers some income replacement. Payments are made on a percentage-of-pay basis, anything from 50% to 75% of the employee’s base pay. However, STD is a private policy, meaning employers are not required to offer it and it does not offer any job protection. Only 5 states require employers to provide STD benefits: California, Hawaii, New Jersey, New York, and Rhode Island. Employers in other states may voluntarily offer STD plans on a fully contributory, partially contributory or noncontributory basis. There is also the option to take out your own STD policy, just as you might pay for your own healthcare or life insurance. However, this can be expensive and not a viable option for everyone.

On first impression, STD might seem like a great alternative to FMLA as a form of paid leave. However, it comes with risks and is generally determined by your particular employer’s internal policies and practices. It is also important to note that while paternity and parental leave qualifies under FMLA, it does not qualify for STD leave. 

Where does that leave working parents? 

If it’s not obvious enough, family leave in the US is convoluted, insufficient and not easily accessible to those who truly need it. FMLA puts a price tag on being pregnant and punishes those who can’t afford to forgo weeks of pay. People with multiple part-time jobs who are unable to add up enough hours to qualify, single-parent households who rely on one paycheck, and self-employed and independent contractors all lose out. Some of the most vulnerable people who need help are simply not supported under this law. FMLA is a step in the right direction, but it needs to go multiple steps further. 

Similarly, STD is limited in its success. For those who are eligible, it is the best option in a bad situation. The most problematic part about STD is how it conflates pregnancy with disability. By consigning maternity leave under the umbrella of disability leave, the knock on effect of this means employees with actual disabilities are also affected. This system poorly addresses the specific needs of different employees at a time when they need the most help. 

Clearly, things need to change - and they are, but not fast enough. It has been a decades-long conversation with slow progress. So far only 9 states have implemented their own paid leave plans. From a federal standpoint, it was only recently that a federal law which advanced paid family leave was passed. Known as the Federal Employees Paid Leave Act, it came into force on October 1st 2020. It is a paid parental leave program which gives federal workers up to 12 weeks of paid time off for birth, adoption or placement of a new child; the act replaces the unpaid FMLA and to be eligible you must fulfill the same criteria. This act is undeniably a step up from FMLA, but it took over 25 years to be realized and is currently limited to federal employees. Time can only tell how effective the act is; we can only hope it doesn’t take another 25 years for it to be rolled out to the wider public.

So, what can you do?

Get informed

Find out exactly what kind of benefit package your employer provides and what you are eligible for. Under STD, amounts paid and lengths of coverage vary, so it’s important to find out what you’re entitled to.

Make a plan

Planning your parental leave should be just as important as packing your hospital bag. Sit down, explore all your options, and talk to those around you, especially if your partner has work benefits that you can both benefit from. To help you get organized, check out the beta version of the Mirza app where you can calculate costs and make a financial game-plan.


According to 2017 research by Pew, 82% of Americans say mothers should receive paid leave after the birth or adoption of a child and 69% support it for fathers. It’s clearly an issue with broad appeal that crosses partisan lines.

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