What Is Pregnancy Leave?

Pregnancy leave, also known as maternal, family, or parental leave, is the time that a parent takes off from work for either the adoption or birth of a child. It's important to remember that pregnancy leave is no longer just for mothers and does not apply only to birth mothers. It is usable by birth and adoptive parents.

In the United States it's unusual to find a job that offers paid pregnancy or paternity leave. However, paid leave is the norm for most other countries. Some companies in the U.S. offer up to six weeks of paid leave for new parents.

In general, pregnancy leave is created using different benefits offered by a company, including:

  • Vacation days
  • Sick leave
  • Personal days
  • Holiday time
  • FMLA (family leave time)
  • Short-term disability

Understanding Short-Term Disability

When an employee needs time off work for medically-related needs, they may qualify for short-term disability. This coverage pays a portion of their salary for a pre-determined number of weeks while they are out of work for needs such as childbirth, illness, or injury.

Short-term disability is frequently part of an employee benefits package, depending on the company. In some cases, this is an automatic benefit, while in other cases employees are required to sign up for it.

Those who work in a state that regulates this benefit for all employees may be required to pay a small fee out of each paycheck to cover their share of the short-term disability cost. If this is the case, the employer covers the rest of the cost. Some companies or unions offer short-term disability benefits at no cost to employees.

In addition, employees can purchase short-term disability coverage from insurance providers in their area. There is a monthly premium for this, and the length of time the short-term disability covers as well as the percentage of your paycheck varies. Usually, the short-term disability insurance covers 50-100 percent of your salary for a set number of weeks. The time frame for the coverage varies depending on your length of employment, the reason for the short-term disability, and the specific insurance plan.

Those who have state-covered short-term disability can expect this to cover between half and two-thirds of their paycheck. In some rare cases, the disability insurance offered by the state will cover the entire paycheck. State-covered insurance ranges from four to 12 weeks, depending on the circumstances.

In some situations, employees may find that they have both state and company short-term disability. When this happens, employees will likely be required to use the state benefits before using their employer's insurance. They will receive the full amount of pay as if they were using the insurance offered by their employer. The company is then recompensed by the state and the company's insurance provider.

When considering short-term disability for a pregnancy, there are several considerations to think about. First, these policies require employees to have either a medical diagnosis or a medical certification from their doctor or other healthcare provider. If there are medical complications or the employee has to have a C-section, extended coverage is possible with most plans. If employees need extended coverage this must be certified by a doctor.

Employees using short-term disability for their pregnancy leave must have had the coverage in place before they conceived. If not, they will become ineligible for the insurance.

With most short-term disability, employees are required to be out of work for several days to a week before they can start collecting their benefits. Some employers or states may also require that employees use vacation time or sick days before using short-term disability coverage.

Employees in need of private short-term disability coverage can find a directory of companies offering this through America's Insurance Plans. Employees who have employer-covered insurance can view their benefits online through their insurance policy provider.

Is Disability Income Subject to Income Tax?

In some cases, employees may have to pay income tax on their disability income. It comes down to who is paying the premiums for the coverage. Any money that an employer pays, including disability checks, are subject to income tax. However, the taxes are not taken out of the checks directly when the employees are paid. They will be responsible for this tax when they file their yearly taxes. Keep in mind that in many cases, the income tax owed is offset by their deductions (including the new baby).

If short-term disability is covered by the state or if an employee is individually insured, they won't have to pay income taxes on the disability checks.

Returning to Work

Timing an employee's return to work depends on several factors. When employees are planning to return to the office, they should keep in mind:

  • Their finances
  • Leave policies
  • Any applicable laws
  • Their personal preference
  • Demands of the job
  • Work-life balance
  • Medical needs of the employee and the baby

Extending Your Leave When Short-Term Disability Runs Out

Employees may feel that the allotted amount of time available through short-term disability simply isn't enough for their pregnancy leave. In this case, employees may consider other ways to extend their leave, such as:

  • Accrued vacation time
  • Accrued paid sick leave
  • Accrued unpaid leave

It's important for employees to check with their company's HR department on their options for extending their leave. Some companies allow employees to use sick time or vacation hours that they haven't yet accrued. However, they may be required to reimburse the company for unaccrued days if they choose to stop working after their leave is over.

If employees use unpaid leave to extend their pregnancy leave, they won't be paid for these days or weeks. However, even when using unpaid leave, an employer is legally required to hold the employee's position until the leave runs out or they return to work, whichever comes first.

Understanding Unpaid Leave With Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA)

In 1993, the Family and Medical Leave Act became law, and it has been one of the biggest recent benefits to families. This law ensures that most companies allow parents of either sex to take unpaid family leave of up to 12 weeks after their child is born. A huge benefit of this law is that employers are required to let employees come back to their job, or a similar position, with the seniority, working conditions, benefits, and salary that they had before their leave.

While the Family Medical Leave Act doesn't cover employees who work for small companies, many are surprised to realize that about 60 percent of employees in the U.S. are eligible for this type of leave. Keep in mind that FMLA only covers unpaid leave. Employees are eligible for FMLA if they work for the federal, state, or local government. If the company employs 50 people or more within 75 miles of the employee's office, he or she is also eligible for this leave.

Another eligibility factor is employees' length of employment. They must have been at their job for at least 12 months. In that time, they also must have worked 1,250 hours, which equates to 25 hours per week for 50 weeks, on average.

If both the employee and their spouse work for the same company, they must remember that the leave covers 12 weeks of total time. This is because FMLA covers only one person per couple who work in the same company, at the same time. In addition, employees have to give their employer 30 days of notice to be guaranteed the time off.

Under specific circumstances, an employer can contest an employee's leave. There may be consequences if the employer can prove that the employee's absence would cause severe financial harm to the company. In this case, employees are entitled to their leave, but their job may not be waiting for them when they get back.

The Family Medical Leave Act helps ensure that employees have health insurance coverage during their leave. Employers are required to keep employees on their health insurance while they are under FMLA protection. In most cases this means that employees will need to continue to pay their regular contributions. Another option for the company is to offer employees COBRA benefits, however if this happens employees are required to pay the entire premium.

If employees take FMLA, their employers are not required to allow them to continue accruing vacation time while they're gone. The time they have off also may not count toward their seniority in the company. Because of this, taking FMLA leave can negatively impact:

  • Yearly allotted vacation time
  • Seniority-based raises
  • Seniority-based promotions
  • 401(k) vesting
  • Stock options
  • Other time or seniority-based benefits

If employees choose to leave the company immediately after their leave, the employer is allowed to require them to pay back any portion the company paid toward the employee's insurance. The exception to this is if the employee is not returning because of a newly-developed medical condition or other issues outside their control.

Parents adopting a child are eligible for FMLA, under all the same regulations as those giving birth themselves. In addition, parents taking FMLA can use their leave how they want. While many parents choose to take all 12 weeks at once, others split this up throughout the first year of baby's life.

Learn More About FMLA

Consider checking out additional resources for more information on FMLA:

U.S. Department of Labor

Wage and Hour Division

200 Constitution Ave., NW

Washington, D.C. 20210

Phone: (866) 487-2365


Families and Work Institute

267 Fifth Avenue, 2nd Floor

New York, N.Y. 10016

Telephone: (212) 465-2044

Fax: (212) 465-8637

Email: [email protected]


National Partnership for Women & Families

1875 Connecticut Ave., NW, Suite 650

Washington, D.C. 20009

Phone: (202) 986-2600

Fax: (202) 986-2539

Email: [email protected]


Equal Rights Advocates

(800) 839-4372

Starting Your Pregnancy Leave

In general, employees' financial situation as well as their responsibilities at work will be the main factors influencing when they can start their leave. FMLA allows employees to take their unpaid leave at any time during their pregnancy or after. However, the leave must end by the end of the twelfth month after the new child arrives.

Employees taking paid vacation, sick, or personal time or using their accrued unpaid time off without using FMLA can generally start this at any time that it is agreeable to themselves and the company. Pregnancy leave generally starts in the last few weeks of pregnancy or once the baby comes. However, this is extremely dependent on a number of factors, including:

  • The employee's energy level
  • Medical conditions brought on or worsened by pregnancy
  • Ease or complication of the pregnancy
  • Job stress
  • Physical labor required on the job
  • The employee's financial situation
  • Other unforeseen situations

Tips for Preparing for an Employee's Maternity Leave

Be as flexible as possible. During pregnancy, unexpected issues come up that could change the start date of an employee's leave.

Stay in control. If someone else is filling in for employees while they're on leave, they should train the replacement early and well.

Keep in touch. Make sure that all pertinent information is relayed to employees on leave, and that there is an open line of communication while they are away.

Ensure employees understand they can and should check in with human resources to fully comprehend their maternity leave options.

10 Pregnancy Leave Facts in the U.S.

  1. Families struggle because of harsh pregnancy leave restrictions. Research shows that those who don't get paid maternity leave from their employers are more likely to leave their job and the workforce. In other cases, women go back to work immediately after the birth of their child, putting the woman at a higher risk of postpartum depression and decreased health of the baby. About 25 percent of mothers re-enter the workforce 10 days after the baby is born.
  2. There are only four states in the country offering publicly funded pregnancy leave. California offers up to 55 percent of the mother's salary for up to six weeks. New Jersey offers two-thirds of a woman's salary for up to six weeks. Rhode Island and Massachusetts both offer up to 60 percent of an employee's salary for up to four weeks.
  3. FMLA isn't as helpful as many people think. While it is a beneficial act, only three in five women qualify for FMLA leave according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research. In addition, only 64 percent of women and 36 percent of men take advantage of the FMLA leave for which they qualify.
  4. The wage gap between men and women is smaller right out of college but grows significantly as women move through the workforce. A woman's peak wage-earning and child-bearing years coincide, which can cause significant damage to a woman's salary.
  5. Current U.S. pregnancy leave policies are contributing to the wage gap. The fact that these policies are left up to the companies means many low-income workers are left out.
  6. Parental leave policies should be inclusive. There are 78 countries that offer paid paternity leave by law. In the U.S. many companies do not offer the same leave options for men as they do women.
  7. Offering paid leave helps businesses. After California implemented paid pregnancy leave for employees, about 91 percent of businesses in the state reported either no impact or a positive effect on their profits. Paid leave offers parents the opportunity to bond with their children and lessens the number of new parents who drop out of the workforce.
  8. Most of the best maternity leave policies in the country have been implemented by tech giants. Google is a leader in paid maternity leave and in 2007 the company changed its maternity leave from 12 weeks to 18 weeks. Facebook offers time off in an equal amount to all parents as well as a $4,000 bonus to help with expenses for the new child. At Apple, new mothers get four weeks off before giving birth, as well as 16 weeks after.
  9. Presidents have worked to make paid parental leave policy. Former President Barack Obama worked toward this goal during his time in office. In 2014, he implemented policy that gave six weeks of paid leave to federal employees.
  10. Better policies are slowly coming. Companies around the country are working to improve their parental leave options, and more are offering paid leave.

What Happens If You're Fired While on Maternity Leave?

On rare occasions employees who are on maternity leave get fired. If you feel that you were subjected to pregnancy discrimination or other laws were broken in your firing, make sure to talk to a lawyer as quickly as possible. They will work with you to help you learn about your options.

You can research your rights as an employee through the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission website. You have rights under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act and other federal laws. This website informs you of your protections and offers resources for further help.

If you need help with pregnancy leave laws, you can post your legal need on UpCounsel’s marketplace. UpCounsel accepts only the top 5 percent of lawyers to its site. Lawyers on UpCounsel come from law schools such as Harvard Law and Yale Law and average 14 years of legal experience, including work with or on behalf of companies like Google, Menlo Ventures, and Airbnb.