How Does Maternity Leave Work: The Employer’s Guide

October 5, 2023・9 mins read
How Does Maternity Leave Work: The Employer’s Guide

Maternity leave is becoming more of a topic of interest for workers and businesses. But exactly how does maternity leave work? Expectant mothers need answers to questions like how long maternity leave is and who pays for maternity leave. Yet they aren’t the only ones interested. New hires looking to plan their families often consider a maternity leave policy and other benefits as a reason to join a company. Even those not anticipating the need for maternity leave look more favorably on companies that support employees and their families.

For businesses, maternity leave ⁠— either paid or unpaid ⁠— may seem like an expense. However, a maternity leave policy can have strong benefits for business in addition to drawing in talent. It can help with productivity, retention and even company loyalty. Smart business owners know these can be of great value for the company.

What is maternity leave?

Maternity leave refers to the period of time when a mother stops working surrounding the birth of a child. When an employee is expecting, the employer can expect to receive time off requests. Maternity leave can start before the child is born if the mother requests it or has complications in her pregnancy and needs immediate medical leave. Or it can begin after birth.

For small to midsize businesses, maternity leave can cause complications for the company. How do companies pay for maternity leave time off or its effects on the workplace? Budgets can be tight, and covering workloads and shifts can be difficult on coworkers and managers. Still, more employers are realizing the advantages of providing maternity leave benefits as generous as they can afford.

Is maternity leave required by law?

For many women in the workforce, maternity leave is not required by law. The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) does provide job protection for eligible employees taking up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave in the event of a birth, adoption, or foster care placement of a child. Still, a high percentage of women do not qualify for leave under the FMLA. Factors affecting this include the size of the organization (businesses with fewer than 50 employees are not covered) and length of service on the job. Employees may need to meet other specific criteria as well before qualifying.

While beneficial to many families, the FMLA leave does not mandate paid maternal or paternal time off for employees to tend to their families. However, many states have been passing their own parental leave and paid family leave acts in recent years. In 2023, 13 states and the District of Columbia now have paid family leave laws according to the Bipartisan Policy Center. The amount of leave time available and the rate of pay varies by state. Both employers and employees should check any mandates in their location for current paid leave guidelines.

How long is maternity leave?

Maternity leave benefits are not uniform, and states with mandated guidelines beyond the FMLA differ. This makes the average maternity leave length greatly varied depending on where an employee lives and works. In some states, qualifying mothers can receive up to a year of paid time off. Others may be permitted to take maternity leave with partial pay or no pay at all. In essence, when it comes to how long maternity leave lasts and whether it is paid or unpaid family leave, the laws drastically differ from state to state.

It’s also common for companies to afford mothers some type of gradual return to work after the birth of their child. This could mean part-time hours or shift changes in the short term. Employer leave policies also determine how much, if any, leave new mothers are entitled to when they give birth. These can include paid and unpaid time off. Some may limit leave to paid vacation time, a minimal amount of unpaid family leave or temporary disability benefits. However, it’s best practice to create a maternity leave policy that sets leave time allowances, whether the employee will be paid and if a leave of absence letter is required.

New mothers have enough difficulty navigating how to approach asking for maternity leave and worrying about health benefits and job security. Private companies benefit from making the maternity leave process as easy and employee-friendly as they can afford to. And employees will appreciate knowing they can rest easy while taking care of their families.

Talking with HR about maternity leave

Talking about maternity leave is not something an expectant mother should delay until the last minute. It’s wise to be more proactive about fact-gathering and planning in terms of how maternity leave works in your specific organization.

Questions to ask HR about maternity leave

The first step is to ask HR about taking maternity leave. The following questions are important to answer:

  • Will you need to drain your sick leave, personal days, and vacation time first?
  • Will you get paid or unpaid time after using up your PTO?
  • How do you get your new baby on your health insurance plan?

When speaking to HR, an employee may discover their company offers other paid maternity benefits they hadn’t thought of. Perhaps assistance with childcare, a dedicated nurse line or other helpful benefits.

How to best prepare for maternity leave at work

Next, an expectant mom should speak to bosses and colleagues about the upcoming extended absence. Ideally, this advance notice will help everyone prepare for her maternity leave. Others will be better able to maintain workflow continuity. A boss doesn’t necessarily need to approve any ideas at this point, but it’s a good idea to present something. Employees can also leave behind a “cheat sheet,” calendar deadlines and/or helpful notes about getting certain tasks done.

Returning to work after maternity leave

While it may seem a long way off, it’s important to plan in advance for the return to work after maternity leave. Set an exact date or a general time frame, depending on the employer’s needs. During maternity leave, employee and employer should touch base as necessary to discuss coming back and any organizational changes that may have occurred.

When does maternity leave start?

Paid or unpaid leave can start before the child is born, if the mother wants to prepare for the birth, or after. Complications of pregnancy may dictate when a mother begins her job-protected leave. For women who work for a company with 15 or more employees, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act offers some job protection in the event of a health complication. New parents should be treated like any worker with a temporary short-term disability.

The economics of maternity leave

The United States does not mandate paid family leave nationwide. In some countries, like Finland, Denmark and Norway, new mothers are paid for extended paid maternity leave following the birth of their child. This is not the norm in the U.S. In fact, only a relatively small percentage of private-industry workers have access to any type of paid maternity leave.

The cost of taking time away from work for the birth of a child can have a direct impact on the amount of leave time requested and used. Women who are the primary breadwinner or single parents often must go back to work as soon as they can for economic reasons.

Lack of pay isn’t the only driving force. Some women also feel financial or other external pressure to return to work sooner because they’re worried about losing professional opportunities. In the end, this gives them less time to bond with their child and recover from childbirth. Meanwhile, the need to keep up with nighttime feedings and household responsibilities while juggling work duties remains.

Is maternity leave paid or unpaid?

For a large percentage of women in the U.S. maternity leave is unpaid time, although some states do legislate paid family leave. Even if it’s not required, paid family leave is a benefit worth pursuing by many employers. Why do employers pay maternity leave?

In a tight applicant market, employee turnover is costly, especially when full-time employees leave for greener pastures. Some estimates put costs for recruiting and onboarding at 1/5 of an employee’s annual salary. Naturally this will vary depending on the particulars of any given organization and what’s involved in the hiring process. Still, the cost of several weeks or months of paid leave can be a bargain in comparison. Employees with access to paid maternity leave are more likely to return to the same job after their leave ends. These women feel appreciated by their employers and tend to offer their loyalty in return.

This makes sense. And such reciprocity helps maintain organizational and budgetary stability for employers.

What is a maternity leave letter, and is it required?

A maternity leave letter is not required by law, but many companies use it to document an employee’s request. It also helps them determine redistribution of work during the leave of absence and plan for the employee’s return. The letter generally outlines how much leave the new mother anticipates needing and when the company can expect her to return. This is also the place where some new mothers offer suggestions on how to allocate their workload in their absence.

If necessary, a member of the Human Resources department can work with the employee to create a leave request.

When in receipt of a formal maternity leave letter or a verbal notification, it’s best practice for the company’s HR department to document the request. They should also respond with written acknowledgment of this and any other correspondence received. Documenting the leave request provides businesses with a relevant timeline for operations and allocating any paid maternity leave provided.

Why maternity leave is important for workers and businesses

The bottom line is that in an ever-growing workforce, maternity leave is good for both employees and employers. Without new workers to fill the jobs of the future, business could grind to a halt. Children are the future of a robust business economy. When today’s wage earners have the job protection, health insurance, vacation time and other compensation they need, they can start families with confidence.

In addition, 12 weeks’ maternity coverage (paid, unpaid or hybrid) can help boost employee morale, productivity, recruitment and retention. With talent at a premium, every benefit an employer provides helps their chances of hiring the best quality candidates. Parental leave affords eligible employees the time off they need so they can return to the job ready to work. And mothers who return to their employers after maternity leave often stay with them.

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