Parental leave: do you know your rights?

Maternity leave entitlements vary according to your state and employer. We help you figure out how to get the maximum benefits.


If you’re expecting a baby, there’s probably a big red note near the top of your gargantuan to-do list that says, “Figure out maternity leave entitlements.” Well, sit back and relax – we did the research for you so you can set your mind to more important tasks (like decorating the nursery!)

A note on terminology: “Maternity leave” generally refers to leave given to a mother for childbirth, whereas the more inclusive terms “parental leave” and “family leave” encompass maternity leave, paternity leave and adoption leave.

Your basic rights

Under the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (FMLA) introduced by Bill Clinton, you’re entitled to 12 weeks of unpaid leave if you’ve worked for over 12 months for an employer of 50 or more employees. Some states (including Maryland, Oregon and Vermont) have dropped the threshold to cover employees of companies with fewer than 50 employees, so check your state’s policy to see if you’re eligible. Your employer may also provide paid parental leave – more on this below.

If the FMLA entitlement seems meagre, that’s because it is – the U.S. is the only developed nation in the world that has yet to implement some sort of national paid family leave plan. Thankfully, individual states are starting to take matters into their own hands, but there’s still a long way to go.

So far, only California, New Jersey, Rhode Island and New York have enacted paid family leave laws, and Washington State and the District of Columbia have adopted similar policies that will take effect in 2020.

Trump shakes thing up

President Trump’s 2018 budget released in May 2017 included a new national entitlement: six weeks of paid parental leave. The plan is set to cost $18.5 billion over 10 years and payments will come out of each state’s unemployment insurance program.

While each state will be free to establish their paid parental leave program in a way that suits their economy, they will be expected to maintain minimum levels in their unemployment trust funds. If they don’t meet those levels, they’ll have to increase their unemployment insurance taxes until they do.

As exciting as a national requirement for six weeks of paid leave sounds, it’s still not a done deal. So, until the plan is rolled out, your best bet for paid leave is your employer.

Check your employer’s paid family leave policy

In the last couple of years, some of America’s largest employers – including Starbucks, Walmart and Yum! Brands (KFC, Taco Bell and Pizza Hut) – have introduced paid family leave plans. If you’re lucky enough to hold a white-collar position in a big company, you could be eligible for a sizeable parental leave package.

Unfortunately, blue-collar employees aren’t so lucky, according to a report produced in May by non-profit organization PL+US: Paid Leave for the United States. Ninety-four percent of low-income workers have no access to paid family leave, and one in four new moms in the U.S. is back at work 10 days after childbirth.

The report found inequalities in the family leave policies of several of the nation’s largest employers. Starbucks gives new moms working in their corporate headquarters 18 weeks of fully paid leave and new dads 12 weeks fully paid, whereas moms who are in-store employees (such as baristas) get only six weeks, and in-store dads and adoptive parents get nothing.

White-collar birth moms at Yum! Brands get 18 weeks of paid leave, whereas birth mothers who work as field employees for franchises (KFC and Pizza Hut, for example) get nothing at all. Ouch.

Thankfully, other employers – including IKEA, Levi’s, Nordstrom, Bank of America and Apple – are leading the way with paid family leave policies that apply equally to all employees. These companies report saving money in the long run due to job retention, as well as an increase in employee morale.

Faced with criticism concerning their unequal policies for salaried and hourly workers, Walmart recently expanded benefits for full-time hourly associates so that they’re now entitled to the same as salaried employees: 10 weeks of paid maternity leave and six weeks of paid parental leave. Only time will tell if other companies will follow in the footsteps of the nation’s largest private employer.

To find out your company’s paid parental leave policy and your entitlements, contact the human resources department as soon as possible after officially announcing your pregnancy at work. (Most women wait until 12 weeks when the risk of miscarriage has diminished, but it’s acceptable to wait until 20 weeks if you think your employer might not feel very warmly about the news). The sooner you fill out the paperwork and iron out the details, the more likely you are to receive your payments on time.