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Maternity Leave: US law and policy

Updated on March 17, 2014

Pregnancy and child-rearing requires both money and time. It is nearly impossible to be carried out safely without these two valuable resources. For this reason, pregnancies typically require extensive amounts of planning and discussion. Choices must be made, especially for the woman who must birth the child and take an integral part in their early lives. Due to this, government and business have tried to take necessary actions to allow women to both work and raise a child. These laws, for many, are sub-par. Realistically, women are sometimes forced to make the decision between work and family.

Family and Medical Leave Act

In 1993, Clinton signed the Family and Medical Leave Act into congress. This law forced employers nation-wide to allow a woman to take at least 12 weeks (3 months) of unpaid maternity leave. Prior to this, little was done to protect woman's jobs and benefits when pregnant. While this may look like an improvement, there are still many faults with this system. Only women working in businesses with 50 or more employers and who meet working hour requirements are eligible, only accounting for 60% of the workforce. Meanwhile, there are exceptions to this law: if you are in the highest 10% of paid employees, your manager can choose to not guarantee your job with your return if they feel you leaving will hurt the business. A further exception is that if both parents work at the same business, the two of them only have 12 weeks combined (not 12 weeks each).


Paid Maternity Leave

While the Family and Medical Leave Act does not require paid leave, some paid leave can be acquired through the private sector with collective bargaining or fringe benefits. This is still not sufficient, as only 25% of employers provide some form of pay during maternity leave. The benefits also depend very much so on the state in which you reside. California has enacted family paid leave laws, while many other states are employer contingent. At the same time, mothers can apply for short-term disability leave, which will cover approximately 6 weeks of paid leave. Most are forced to return back to work after these 6 weeks, however, because they are in need of the income.

Little to no income during these 12 weeks can be a serious problem for young families. That extra income is necessary to pay for all the expenses of pregnancy and child raising. Half of American mothers with children 1 year and younger are currently in the workforce. A stronger national policy is required to keep these families stable and children supported.


US v. European Maternity Leave

In Europe, the United Nations has established minimum standards for maternity leave. These standards include:

  • Fourteen plus weeks of leave
  • Must be paid at least 2/3 of original earnings during leave
  • Must have medical insurance

Most of the developed European countries have exceeded these requirements while the US has failed to meet any of them.


Maternity Leaves 2006-2007

Percent Wage Paid
United Kingdom
European Average
United States

Source: Double Standards (OECD)

What it all Means

Europe clearly shows significantly better maternity leave benefits than that of the United States. The unpaid leave and exceptions to the Family and Medical Leave Act force women to make important decisions when it comes to their job and family. The Huffington Post claims "In total, we're talking about 4.1 million low-income families headed by working mothers with their 8.5 million children." The lack of strong national policy making is just one of the factors contributing to poverty (especially child poverty). In the developed world, the US has the highest level of relative child poverty at 21%, meaning children account for a fifth of the poverty in the United States.

Meanwhile, this greatly affects the woman's ability to both care for her child and continue to work. This results in the decision between work and family. Most mothers want more time with their young child, usually desiring greater than 12 weeks; however, the economy forces these woman to go back to work, struggling to maintain their job and care for their family. If a woman truly wants to climb up in her field it becomes nearly impossible with the demands of a pregnancy and child (unless nannies and families are readily available and the mother approves of this alternative). It has been reported that mothers earn up to 14% less than women without children. While other factors could be at play, logically and realistically, a statistic of this sort seems quite accurate.

The cost and time required for children can be a limiting factor on the environmental issue of the growing population. Therefore, from a scientific stand-point these sub-par laws could be a positive thing. As a woman, on the other hand, these laws (or lack thereof) make it difficult to maintain a steady career with competitive wages and a family. Of course, the other partner may have the ability to care for the child, yet the same cases of unpaid paternity leave apply.


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    • alyssagoesgreen profile imageAUTHOR

      Alyssa S 

      7 years ago from USA

      Yes, some do, there's several good charts on that at It's quite sad actually and hopefully we can do something to change this for the next generation.

    • mackyi profile image

      I.W. McFarlane 

      7 years ago from Philadelphia

      This is a very interesting hub. In fact, this is one topic I have always questioned. In fact, I could even add a few third world countries to this list who have a much better stats than the U.S. when it comes to maternity leave for women.


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