Parental Leave

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Who gets paid parental leave?

At the federal level, no employer in the U.S. is required to provide paid maternity or paternity leave for any length of time. So who gets paid time off as a new parent? Estimates from the U.S. Bureau of labor statistics suggest just 11% of working parents in private industry, just 16% in state and local government jobs, and 0% of parents working for largest single employer in the country, the federal government.

Who gets unpaid parental leave?

Up until 1978, employers were also under no obligation to employ or retain a pregnant employee. A woman could be legally fired for being pregnant. Once a woman left her job to give birth, there were no guarantees that her job would be held on her return, regardless of how long she stayed away from work (days, weeks, or months).

In 1978, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) was enacted to ensure that pregnant women working for employers with more than 15 workers could no longer be fired just for being pregnant. The Act characterizes pregnant workers in the same way as other workers with medical conditions, and ensures that all such workers be treated equally. So, for example, if a pregnancy requires that a woman cannot perform certain manual duties, then, provided her company would reassign a worker with some other temporary disability to different duties, they must do the same for her.  But, if her company does not allow for such concessions for anyone, they do not need to do anything differently for her.

The Pregnancy Discrimination Act also ensures that an employer cannot force a pregnant worker to take maternity leave.  However, an employee who does take maternity leave is only afforded the same protections that employer offers to other disabled employees. So, an employer must hold a job open for a woman who takes maternity leave for the same length of time that they have agreed to hold a job open for anyone else on their staff who is out on disability or sick leave.  If an employer does not allow for such concessions for anyone, they do not need to do anything differently for a pregnancy-related absence.

In 1993, President Clinton strengthened protections for maternity leave at a federal level with the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). The FMLA only applies to workers who have worked for more than 25 hours per week, for at least a year, for an employer with at least 50 employees. Under the FMLA, new parents are able to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave before or after their baby’s birth, while their job (or an equivalent position at an equivalent salary) is held for their return. This time may be taken all at once, or in parts (if approved by the employer), all within a year.  FMLA applies to both men and women, and applies to birth, adoption, and foster care. Employees planning to take parental leave must give their employers 30 days notice to this effect.

Employees on leave through FMLA are entitled to remain on their employers’ health insurance plans, but may be required by their employers to reimburse them for the full cost of their premiums. Employers may also require workers on leave through FMLA to substitute any accrued paid leave for periods of unpaid FMLA leave. In other words, if an employer does offer paid vacation, sick, or personal time, then it may choose to require any worker on FMLA leave to use that paid leave concurrently with (not in addition to) FMLA.

In 2010, the FMLA was amended to require employers to offer break times and a dedicated space to nursing mothers “for an employee to express breast milk for her nursing child for 1 year after the child’s birth each time such employee has need to express the milk.” Only workers who meet the conditions of the FMLA qualify.

The PDA and FMLA are the only federal protections afforded to new parents in the United States.

Is there anywhere in the U.S. that does things differently?

There are a few cities and states that have implemented stronger protections for new parents, including:

  • As of July 2004, new parents in California can apply to receive 55% percent of their income, up to a weekly capped amount, for up to 6 weeks during FMLA leave.
  • As of July 2009, new parents in New Jersey can apply to receive 2/3rds of their income, up to a weekly capped amount, for up to 6 weeks during FMLA leave.
  • California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Iowa, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Montana, New Hampshire and Washington provide job-protected unpaid pregnancy-related leave for employees of businesses with fewer than 50 employees (and so would otherwise not be covered by FMLA guidelines).
  •  Connecticut, Hawaii, Maine, Minnesota, New Jersey, Oregon, Wisconsin and the District of Columbia provide job-protected unpaid leave to employees who have not worked 25 hours per week for a year (and so would otherwise not be covered by FMLA guidelines).
  • On June 6 2013, the Austin city council voted to ensure city employees will be able to access up to 30 days of paid parental leave. Only non-public safety city employees will be eligible. Same-sex partners, mothers, and fathers of a newborn or newly adopted child. Policy specifics will be voted on at a later date, with the hope of having the policy in place by Oct 1 2013.
  • On July 2 2013, the Rhode Island General Assembly passed a Temporary Caregiver Insurance law, which as of January 1 2014 (pending the Governor’s signature) will provide up to four weeks of job-protected and health-insurance-protected paid leave for workers who take time off to care for a seriously ill family member or new child. The program will be funded through employee contributions to an insurance pool and provides partial pay.

How can change happen more broadly?

The National Partnership for Women and Families and the Center for American Progress are working on drafting a new FAMILY Act that would create a national insurance program to to provide up to 12 weeks of paid parental, sick, or care-giving leave at up to 66% percent of workers’ income. Costs would be funded by equal contributions from employer and employee, amounting to less than $1.50 each week for an average worker.

There are also movements taking hold in cities and states around the country promoting change at a local level.

Read more about organizations working to help improve access to paid parental leave. Get involved.