What Is the Average Maternity Leave?

Average maternity leave, also known as family or parental leave, is the time a mom (or dad) takes off work for a new baby's birth or a child's adoption. Paid maternity leave isn't common in the United States, but is common in almost all countries. Recently, some American companies have started offering new moms and dads time off with pay, up to six weeks with some companies.

If you're pregnant or planning adoption, you'll more likely take a combination of vacation, personal days, sick time, short-term disability (STD), and unpaid leave during your time off. Many companies have policies that decide in which order each kind of leave is taken.

As soon as you can during your pregnancy, start checking out leave options. This will help you get the right paperwork signed and turned in long before your baby comes.

Your state's Department of Labor has current listings of disability insurance, unemployment insurance, and family leave provisions that you can take advantage of during your leave. You can also check the internet for local disability insurance policies.  

How Does Short-Term Disability Work?

Short-term disability (STD) insurance is coverage that replaces your pay, or part of it, during the time you miss work due to illness, injury, or childbirth. If your state offers STD, you might have to pay a small amount every time you get paid to cover your portion. If your company or union offers STD, or if the coverage is insufficient, you can buy an individual policy or extra coverage through an insurance agent for a monthly or quarterly premium.

Most parental leaves are six weeks long. If you're adopting or taking in foster children, you won't be able to use disability, but you can take 12 weeks off under the FMLA. Some states and companies will offer more time for a parental leave.

Who Pays for Income Tax on Disability Income?

Any payments from state disability programs or from individual STD insurance isn't taxed. You will be responsible for reporting the income on your tax returns.

What to Do When Short-Term Disability Coverage Runs Out?

Many women go back to work once the STD coverage is over, which is usually about six weeks after leave starts. You can extend your leave using the following:

  • Vacation
  • Personal days
  • Sick Days
  • Unpaid leave

If you qualify, you're eligible for 12 weeks unpaid FMLA leave you could use when your STD coverage stops. Some states offer additional time off as unpaid pregnancy leave that protects your position until you go back to work or until the leave ends.

Rights to Maternity Leave

Signed into law in 1993, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), gives workers up to 12 weeks protected leave for certain family and medical reasons. To be eligible, you have to work for the state, local, or federal government or a company that has more than 50 employees working in a 75-mile radius. You must have worked 1,250 hours over the past year, which is an average of 25 hours a week for 50 weeks.

Exceptions to FMLA eligibility are if you're in the highest paid 10 percent of employees, your company isn't required to hold your position if the company can prove your absence would cause significant monetary harm to the company. Another exception is, if you and your partner or spouse work for the same company, you are both entitled to 12 weeks FMLA leave together.

Even if you don't qualify for FMLA, you might be eligible under your state's provisions or your company's leave policies, which are sometimes more giving than the FMLA.

Maternity leave benefits vary widely by state. Adopting a child or bearing a child falls under the tenets of the FMLA. If you're adopting or fostering, leave begins when the child enters your home or when you leave to get the child if they're coming from another country. You can also take time off during the adoption process for meetings with lawyers and case workers.

Along with Papua New Guinea and Oman, The United States doesn't have paid maternity leave, but many are optimistic that will change with the FAMILY act that's in Congress as of August 2017.

It's unlawful for a company to terminate a woman's employment because she becomes pregnant or takes maternity leave. Employers can let a pregnant woman go if it's part of an overall workforce reduction or for a specific reason. If you think you're experiencing pregnancy discrimination, contact legal counsel or the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission. The National Partnership for Women and Families, and the Families and Work Institute have all the information you need on family leave policies.

Planning Your Maternity Leave

Work With Your HR Department

Ask HR personnel for a current handbook or FMLA leave policies and procedures to see how much paid maternity leave you could get, if any. Your company or HR representative may give you a specific maternity leave form that you fill in with your doctor. Sometimes they'll do it for you.  Keep in mind, when your leave is over, your company must give you back your position or a similar position with the same pay, benefits, working environment, and seniority.

Ask Other Working Moms About Their Leave

Talking with other moms, especially those at your company, can help you decide how much time to take and how to stay connected at work. They can also give you some tips on making the most of your time off.

Check Your Budget 

Crunch your numbers before deciding how much unpaid leave you can take. Keep in mind that the length of your maternity leave could affect your health insurance from work.

Check If Spouse or Family Members May Help

Make plans including your spouse and family member if you can. If another family member could take leave and care for the baby when your leave is over, you could save money on daycare. This also keeps the baby in the care of someone in the family longer.  

The Longer You Work, the Less Sleep-Deprived You May Be

Many mothers need six weeks to get over the physical effects of childbirth. Even then, it could be an additional two to three months before you get more than four hours of sleep at a time. Some babies don't sleep for five or six consecutive hours at night until they're six to eight months old. If your job necessitates having a good night's sleep to keep you and those around you safe, you might need to take a longer leave.

It's Easier to Cut Back Than It Is to Extend Your Maternity Leave

You should always overshoot the amount of time you want to take off in case you need more time than what's considered normal. Having a baby isn't a predictable thing and things can change with your health and the baby's health after you deliver.  

Negative Effects of Not Taking Enough Maternity Leave

Between 11 to 20 percent of new mothers battle with postpartum depression and not having enough time off from work after birth is a factor according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Not getting enough sleep leads to physical and mental exhaustion which affects every area of life. Also, going back from maternity leave prematurely can affect a mom's ability to breast feed.

9 Things You Need to Know About Maternity Leave in the US

Many Mothers Don't Get Paid Leave

America is the last nation in the world for paid leave, which has negative impacts on the economy. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a mere 12 percent of female employees get paid maternity leave benefits in this country. Lower-wage earning workers only got paid leave 5 percent of the time.

Parents Aren't Taking Leave

A report in the American Journal of Public Health stated that an average of around 273,000 American mothers took leave every month between 1994 and 2015. The number of women taking leave has stayed the same for the past two decades despite facts indicating that number should be rising.

Many recent studies show that despite efforts to increase parental leave benefits through state law or corporate benefits, very little has improved regarding how women use the leave benefits they can get. A high number of employees who can take FMLA leave, 64 percent of women and 36 percent of men, don't use it at all. In March of 2015, the FMLA was changed to include same-sex couples after a long battle.

Few States Offer Paid Leave

Scientists from the American Journal of Public Health stated that fewer than 50 percent of mothers on maternity were paid for it. Parental leave policy remains under the domain of each company. Research indicates that women that don't get paid leave are more likely to leave the workforce, losing their income.

A Few States Have State Paid Maternity Leave Laws Including:

  • Californians receive six weeks’ pay at 55 percent of their salary
  • New Jersey moms receive six weeks’ pay at ⅔ salary
  • Rhode Island pays four weeks at 60 percent

Recently, the Department of Labor added to its program to advocate for more paid leave and gave $500,000 in grants to Montana, Washington D.C., and Massachusetts to research and start public funding for paid maternity leave. A new social media campaign led by the Department of Labor, #LeadonLeave, is gaining attention.

The FMLA Isn't for Everyone

The FMLA covers just under 60 percent of American workers. Leave under the FMLA is only for women and men who worked 1,250 hours over the last year for an employer with more than 50 workers. Twenty percent of working women don't qualify for FMLA leave according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research. A Senior Research Adviser at the Society for Human Resource Management, Ellen Galinsky, said that in 2005 employees took 15.2 weeks of maternity leave compared to 14.5 in 2016.

Wage Gap Concerns

The wage gap is another issue. When workers first get out of college the gap is small, but over time, when women get married and have children it gets much wider. About 47 percent of workers are women, yet women make up ⅔ of low-wage workers. Since parental leave policies still fall under corporate jurisdiction and aren't regulated by the government, a certain group of mothers are benefitting and low-income mothers are left behind.

Paid Paternity Leave: Great Progress

The United States is lagging behind the 78 other countries in the world with paid paternity leave and most policies in America don't include adoptive parents or those who choose a surrogate. Bloomberg Businessweek states that when an employer gives paternity leave to dads, it makes the company less likely to stigmatize women at hiring and the requests from male employees for paternal leave increases. In California, 26 percent of new dads take paternity leave.

Paid Leave is Good for the Economy

Economists discovered that when workers have paid leave, they will take it, lessening the chance an employee drops out of the workforce altogether. Women who have paid maternity leave are more likely to return to work. Tech companies like Google, Facebook, Apple, Yahoo, Reddit, Twitter, and Instagram have fair maternity leave policies.

Paid Leave is Gaining Momentum

Toward the end of 2014, Obama granted federal employees six weeks of paid family leave after a new baby and stated that paid parental leave is an economic matter. While on the 2016 campaign trail, President Trump vowed to work toward six weeks of paid maternity leave for new mothers. While six weeks would be a fantastic beginning, it's nowhere near the 14 weeks the International Labor Organization recommends. As the knowledge about how important paid maternity leave is increases, more companies are making changes.

Frequently Asked Questions

How and When Should Maternity Leave Be Requested?

Under Federal guidelines, you must ask for leave at least 30 days prior to starting leave. You can do it anytime during your pregnancy. Waiting until after your first trimester is over is a good recommendation since your miscarriage risk goes down.

How to Decide When to Start the Maternity Leave?

Starting maternity leave depends on many factors, including:

  • Your energy levels
  • How complicated your pregnancy is
  • The stress and physical labor of your job
  • Your finances

The earlier you start leave in your pregnancy, the sooner after your baby is born you'll have to go back to work. Under FMLA, you can begin your maternity leave anytime during pregnancy as long as it's over within 12 months of when the baby comes.

What If Employer Denies a Request for Unpaid Leave?

If you're certain you're eligible for FMLA leave or your state's provisions and you've turned in your paperwork on time, remind your employer about the applicable laws. You can talk with the U.S. Department of Labor and get a sheet with FMLA facts and ways to get your company to comply.

If working with your employer nicely doesn't work and you believe you qualify for leave, contact your Labor Department's Wage and Hour Division's regional office and make a complaint. This department investigates unpaid leave claims and will sometimes sue a company on an employee's behalf. A national nonprofit group, the Equal Rights Advocates, strive for women's rights at work and advise many women on pregnancy discrimination and family leave.

What Happens to My Benefits While on Maternity Leave?

Under FMLA protection, your employer has to keep your insurance plan while you're off, whether you're on disability or maternity leave. Many employers keep paying the premiums, but ask for you to pay back your portion that's normally taken from you check.

If you inform your employer that you don't intend on returning to work or if your position is cut while you're out, your company may stop paying your insurance and put you on COBRA. COBRA is the same insurance you had at work, but you pay the entire premium yourself.

If you decide to quit, you may have to pay back the part of your premium your employer paid while you were on leave. The FMLA doesn't require companies to allow benefit accrual or addition to seniority time when you're out. You won't add to your retirement or flexible accounts because you're not being paid and can't put in pre-tax money.

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