When it comes to paid maternity leave, the stats for new parents in the United States remain beyond bleak. In fact, the World Policy Analysis Center notes that the U.S. is the only wealthy country in the world without any guaranteed paid leave on a federal level — a grim and, frankly, unacceptable stat that neglects the health and well-being of new mamas and their babies alike.
So if you find out your company doesn’t offer any paid maternity leave, what should you do? Is there any recourse or ways to negotiate for some well-deserved paid time off post-baby? Vicki Shabo, the Senior Fellow for Paid Leave Policy and Strategy at New America’s Better Life Lab, shared all the info you need to know, including resources that might be available to you as you navigate the murky maternity leave waters.
What To Know About Paid and Unpaid Leave In The U.S.
Shabo reiterated the maddening reality that “there’s no federal law requiring employers to provide paid maternity or paid parental leave,” noting that “only about one-fifth of workers are in workplaces that offer paid maternity leave — and fewer than one-sixth are at workplaces that offer paid paternity leave — to all employees, according to data collected in 2018 for the U.S. Department of Labor.”
More employers — but still well under 4 in 10 — “offer paid maternity or parental leave to most employees,” she notes. “Some workplaces provide short-term disability insurance that provides partial pay for a period of incapacity leading up to and right after giving birth, but only about one-quarter of all workplaces have this type of coverage for all employees for pregnancy or other serious health issues and about four in ten offer it to at least some employees.”
So there’s a good chance your paid benefits are non-existent. Not that it’s of much consolation, but it’s worth pointing out that you might be entitled to unpaid leave depending on a few key factors, notes Shabo. “If your employer has 50 or more employees within a 75-mile radius of your worksite, and you’ve worked for your employer for at least one year and have logged at least 1,250 hours, you’re entitled to unpaid leave under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA),” she says.
Though you won’t receive payment during this time, Shabo says that FMLA benefits “should protect your job and your right to continue health insurance coverage.” She adds, “You should also be able to use any accrued paid time off, paid sick time, paid vacation time, etc. during this period of leave. This isn’t the same as paid parental or maternity leave (it’s important to have some time available for when you return, if you can!) but it helps soften the blow.”
“The other thing to know is that some employees have successfully advocated to their employers for a new paid leave policy when they’ve realized that their employer doesn’t provide one,” she adds. “There are resources available to show them the value for you and for their business.” More on these in a sec.
What You Can Do To Ease The Sting
Shabo has some tips for how to handle this genuinely sh*tty situation, should you find yourself without access to paid time off. “First, look at whether your state has a paid family and medical leave or short-term disability insurance program in place,” she says. “These states are: California, Connecticut, the District of Columbia, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island and Washington. Programs in Oregon (late 2022), Colorado (2023), Maryland (2024) and Delaware (2025) will be implemented in the coming years. If you live in states where paid leave is available, you may be able to access benefits through the state program.”
Checking on local laws and statutes is a good jumping off point, says Shabo. “Even if your state doesn’t have a paid leave program, you may be entitled to unpaid leave through the FMLA or a similar state law, or via a state pregnancy disability law.”
There are also some resources that might be able to ease the burden a bit. Shabo recommends checking into organizations like A Better Balance, a New York-based legal support organization, for help. U.S. News and World Report suggests looking into whether or not you qualify for government assistance via programs such as WIC, SNAP, and some state disability programs that offer paid benefits for food and other costs, such as diapers and formula. Some companies and retailers, such as Amazon, buybuy BABY, Target, and more, offer free welcome kits or goody bags filled with samples for new parents, which can help get you started.
How To Leverage Your Benefits and Negotiate For More
The last thing expecting and new parents should have to do is navigate corporate red tape and fight for basic rights, but if you have some support and guidance, you could end up benefiting not just your growing family, but others in your workplace, too. “If you’re in a position to negotiate with your company, you can share research showing the value of paid leave for their bottom line as well as for you and your family,” says Shabo. “Good resources come from Boston Consulting Group and Human Capital Management Institute, American Sustainable Business Council and Panorama, which show that offering paid leave promotes retention, productivity, and has a strong return on investment.”
“There’s a lot of additional research about the health impacts on women and children and the importance of paid leave for men in helping to support healthy families and relationships. There are a number of good resources for employers to use in crafting a paid leave policy here.”
U.S. News and World Report also recommends tapping into any insurance benefits you might have, such as using flexible spending accounts, which can help workers pay for child care and medical expenses with tax-free money.
“If you’re not able to receive paid leave, certainly try to ask for arrangements that suit the needs of you and your newly-expanded family,” adds Shabo. “Whether the ability to return to work part-time, to return with flexible hours, or to be able to work from home (if your job is one that can be done remotely). None of these are substitutes for taking the time you need to heal or bond, but they might help.” And remember you’re far from alone in the fight, so having open and honest dialogue with your coworkers, friends, family, neighbors, and other support networks is crucial in determining how you can get the paid leave you deserve and need.