Maternity Leave

Know your rights when it comes to family leave

If you are employed and pregnant, you are going to need time off from work before you give birth and afterwards, so you can care for your new son or daughter. In developed countries around the world, there are employment laws in place which protect your rights so that you don't have to worry about losing your job to take care of yourself and your newborn baby. These legal provisions are typically referred to as maternity leave.

It is recommended that you approach your employer when you know that you are pregnant so your maternity leave can be scheduled well ahead of time. Maternity leave may be paid or unpaid, depending on the nature of your job, your employer's policies, and the length of time you will be away from work.


Parental Leave in the United States

In the United States, maternity leave falls under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). Under the provisions of that act, eligible workers are entitled to 12 weeks of job-protected time off per year for a variety of family and medical reasons, including caring for a new infant. The federal act guarantees only unpaid time off; however, your employer may still pay you a percentage of your regular wages, depending on your company's specific policies. In order to be eligible, you must have worked for your employer for at least 12 months, you must have worked at least 1250 hours in the last year, and your employer must have at least 50 employees within a 75-mile radius.

Individual U.S. states are starting to set up their own family and medical leave legislation, augmenting the rights you have under the federal FMLA. For example, the California government has passed legislation that provides up to six weeks of partial pay for workers who take time off for medical reasons and to care for newborn babies.

The FMLA can be a little tricky to interpret, especially if your state has its own maternity leave provisions as well. Speak to your HR department about exactly what you're entitled to in order to avoid surprises down the road. Keep in mind that if you take any time off for medical reasons before the birth -- if you're put on bed rest, for example -- this will count as part of your 12 weeks. On the other hand, since the FMLA is not strictly for maternity leave (it covers any absence to care for immediate family members), your husband may be entitled to take some time off, as well, should he want to.

Family Leave Laws in Other Countries

Maternity leave laws vary greatly from country to country. In Australia, a comprehensive Paid Parental Leave scheme was introduced in January 2011, making the United States the last developed nation in the world with no guaranteed paid maternity leave. Eligible mothers under the Australian PPL will receive payments equivalent to the federal minimum wage for up to 18 weeks while caring for a new infant. In addition, both parents are entitled to 12 months of job-protected leave each, although this may be unpaid after the first 18 weeks. Mothers in low-income families who have not worked enough hours to qualify for the PPL may apply for Baby Bonus payments instead.

In Canada, eligible new mothers can take 52 weeks off for maternity leave, and are entitled to up to 55 percent of their regular wages for 50 weeks (there is a two-week wait period before benefits start). The first 17 weeks must be taken by the mother, but the remaining 35 weeks may be shared between both parents.

In European countries, it is typical for 75 to 100 percent of regular wages to be paid for periods of 14 to 20 weeks, or more. Norway has the best maternity benefits, allowing new mothers to choose between 44 weeks off at full pay or 54 weeks of at 80 percent pay. Many European countries also allow for unpaid, job-protected parental leave for up to 3 years per child, which may be shared between both parents. Currently, maternity leave and parental leave policies vary from country to country, but the European Union is considering legislation that would guarantee 20 weeks of maternity leave at full pay across Europe.