Maternity leave is a leave of absence from work for mothers following the birth, adoption, or foster care placement of a child. Maternity leave is often a part of broader parental leave, which extends to both parents. An unpaid maternity leave is required in all US states if both the employer and the employee meet certain criteria. 

US employers are not required to offer paid maternity leave or related benefits, so there tends to be a wide range of offers in maternity leave policies. As a result, HR leaders can play an important role in developing a maternity leave policy that best fits their organization.

Maternity Leave Legal Requirements

A combination of federal and state requirements defines the minimum amount of unpaid maternity leave an employer must offer. 

Federal leave

Enacted in 1996, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) covers a range of leave reasons and requires up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave per year for qualifying health and family absences. These covered absences include the birth or adoption of a child, or placement of a foster care child with the employee. 

All public agencies and entities are subject to the Act, whereas private-sector employers are only subject to the FMLA if they have 50 or more employees. 

There are also several conditions for employees to be eligible for the FMLA. They must have worked for the employer for at least 12 months, have worked at least 1,250 hours during the 12 months prior to leave, and work in a location where the employer has at least 50 employees within 75 miles. Part-time and remote employees located farther from the rest of the business may not be eligible for the FMLA even if their employer is subject to the Act. 

State family leave programs

Many states have enacted laws mandating maternity leave beyond what is required by the FMLA. For instance, Vermont applies requirements similar to the FMLA for maternity leave to all employers with 10 or more employees. 

In addition, 11 states have programs through which the state pays a family leave benefit while an employee is away from work to care for a newborn, adopted, or foster child. For example, California’s Paid Family Leave insurance program provides up to eight weeks of paid leave to bond with a new child. Employers do not pay for these benefits directly but may need to support employees in applying for them. 

Anti-discrimination laws

Discrimination or harassment of an employee based on pregnancy violates several US laws. These include Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act. This is important when considering maternity leave. 

For example, it would be unwise to allow a male employee to take unpaid leave to recover from surgery and reject a female employee’s request for unpaid leave following childbirth. This could be considered illegal discrimination even if the FMLA does not cover your organization.

One particular area to be aware of is the employee’s right to return to equivalent work when they return from FMLA leave. This means that the employee must be returned to a job with similar wages, benefits, and duties. 

Business Benefits Of a Maternity Leave Policy

Given the limited and sometimes confusing laws setting minimum standards for maternity leave, it’s no surprise that setting a clear maternity leave policy can benefit your business. 

A good maternity policy shows commitment to your employees and can help attract and retain top talent. It also sets clear expectations that will help your employees plan for their leave and coordinate a successful return to work. 

Take a look at this sample policy for paid family leave for further guidance. 

Types Of Maternity Leave Benefits

When crafting a maternity leave policy, start by ensuring your offering meets legal requirements. From there, you can add benefits to show your support for new parents, such as:

  • Paid time off for part or all of maternity leave
  • Additional unpaid time off
  • Flexible return to work, such as paths to ramp up from a part-time return back to full-time
  • Company gifts or gift cards
  • Paternity or family leave to extend support to other family members

Generous maternity leave benefits are one of the ways organizations can set themselves apart as an employer of choice.  

HR and Maternity Leave

HR can help guide maternity leave policy by staying on top of common and innovative benefits in your area and industry. HR can have a large impact in this area because much of what organizations offer in terms of maternity leave goes beyond what is legally required. 

Once benefits are decided upon, a maternity policy should be put in writing and communicated to all employees. The policy should include notice requirements and guidance for return-to-work coordination.

When managing maternity leaves or coaching managers on maternity leave policy, remember that pregnancy and childbirth cannot be a reason to treat an employee unequally.  

Conclusion

Maternity leave is impacted by a patchwork of federal and state laws and benefit programs. Delivering a clear maternity leave policy is therefore vital to establish how your business will meet or exceed legal requirements. 

Choosing to offer benefits beyond what’s required by law also sends a strong message of support to employees. HR can assist with researching which benefits are most impactful in your area and industry, and manage maternity leaves as they arise. 

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