Do You Still Get Paid While On Maternity Leave?

Despite the fact that the U.S. is one of the wealthiest countries in the world, it's also one of the only industrialized nations that fails to provide paid family leave for the birth of a new child. The federal government does provide protected job leave (for up to 12 weeks) meaning that an employee can take time off for medical or family reasons and ensure they keep their job, but they are not guaranteed pay for any time they take. For many, this lack of pay during time away from work can be too financially strenuous to continue for the entire 12 weeks, which often pushes brand-new parents back into the workforce before they are physically or mentally ready to be there.

Having a child is life-changing, and for almost half of the current U.S. workforce population, it's also a physically brutal experience. In addition to childbirth, bonding, feeding, and attempting to sleep with a new infant, this can prove to be a draining process only exasperated by the demands of returning to work too soon. Women who face complications during childbirth are especially at risk of returning to work before they've had time to fully heal. There are a myriad of factors that make the U.S.'s current maternity leave system untenable for a vast majority of new and expectant mothers. Let's dive into the current programs available to women, and men, during what should be a joyful time but is increasingly made into an economically impossible one.


The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) was established to create job protection for workers in cases of family care and/or medically necessary leave. FMLA establishes two major protections for workers who need this leave: they are guaranteed to keep their job, and they are guaranteed continuation of their workplace insurance coverage. This leave can be used for up to 12 weeks, but it is entirely unpaid and it only applies to those who qualify. FMLA only applies to employees who have worked for at least 12 months at their employer and who have worked at least 1,250 hours during the 12 months immediately prior to the start of their FMLA leave (roughly 25 hours per week). To make it more complicated, expectant mothers must work for an FMLA "covered" employer, which means that the company must employ at least 50 people during at least 20 workweeks a year.

Since FMLA only offers specific job protections, many expecting mothers must rely on short-term disability insurance (STDI) if they hope to receive any pay during their maternity leave. However, STDI is only available depending on your workplace and insurance provider (it's also worth noting that, as of 2022, only 40% of U.S. workers actually had access to STDI). STDI is mainly available to private sector employees with specific and more traditional full-time workplaces. This largely excludes low-income workers who would benefit most from STDI, including service, food service, and hospitality workers.

State programs

Despite the federal government's lack of paid leave, some states have taken it upon themselves to offer paid programs to their residents. Eight states and Washington, D.C. currently offer some kind of paid leave for either maternity leave or family care but the terms vary depending on the location. Most notably, the length of paid leave offered in these states ranges from five to 12 weeks. New Hampshire and Vermont offer voluntary opt-in approaches that allow private workers to purchase additional coverage but without the legal guarantee of pay. This voluntary opt-in option is also available in many states for freelance and self-employed workers without a workplace to receive STDI benefits from.

Most state programs pay in one of two ways: flat (set weekly amount) or progressive (sliding scale that offers higher benefit amounts for lower-income workers). All state benefit plans are ultimately capped at a maximum weekly amount, so many workers will not receive equal pay to what their income might be normally. For example, in California, the pay rate is 55% of the employee's weekly pay amount (up to $1,067) and it only applies to employees who meet the same federal FMLA requirements (12 months at their employer with at least 1,250 hours). These restrictions make it easy to see how many expecting mothers with part-time and/or service industry jobs can and are left without paid leave coverage, even in states that technically offer it.


It's worth mentioning that California extends the 12 weeks of FMLA-protected unpaid leave for an additional four months for new mothers who face complications during or after childbirth. While still not financially plausible for many Americans, the legislative recognition that complications require additional physical time off is important. The maternal mortality rate in the U.S. is on the rise, with 84% of pregnancy-related deaths being entirely preventable. Increasingly, medical professionals are looking at the lack of paid family leave as a contributing factor in the deaths of new mothers.

The traditional maternity leave model involves an expectant mother taking two weeks off before the birth of their child, and six weeks off postpartum. However, Monique Rainford, MD, an OB-GYN, explained to Yale Medicine why this model might not be the best. "Forty-two days is based on the idea that, physiologically, a mother's body returns to normal about six weeks after she gives birth. Most things usually do return to normal, but the medical community has started to realize that there are still many mothers who are not quite back to normal physiologically — or otherwise — at that point." This is especially troubling when you consider that suicide and homicide are both now considered leading causes of death during pregnancy and postpartum. One in seven women face postpartum depression (with a vast majority going undiagnosed) so the fact that many new mothers are forced back into the workplace early due to a lack of income is directly contributing to preventable deaths.

Paternity/partner leave

Paternity/partner leave is covered under the FMLA. However, just like with expectant mothers, many American families are unable to live 12 weeks without income and any hope of paid leave is left to states or employers. This forces many non-birthing parents to return to work early, or not even take time off, to ensure the financial security of the household. This is especially troubling since research shows that fathers who take at least two weeks off after the birth of their child are more involved with that child's care nine months after birth than those who did not take leave.

Another concerning element in paid paternity/partner leave is how LGBTQ+ couples are treated. Unlike cisgender heterosexual couples, paid leave options can be decidedly more complicated for LGBTQ+ couples with less traditional caregiver roles among new parents. Existing state and workplace-specific paid leave requirements for more traditional families already vary widely and leave many families out. This means that families with more unique gestational or biological pathways to parenthood face even fewer protections. Since paid leave programs are still limited, it is extremely difficult for LGBTQ+ couples to be properly represented across policies. Even countries with guaranteed paid family leave still apply unequal application of that leave for LGBTQ+ identifying couples. One study found that same-sex male couples received shorter paid parental leave periods than heterosexual or same-sex female couples.

How the U.S. stacks up against other countries

Paid family leave is currently guaranteed in 178 countries. However, the U.S. joins nations like Somalia, India, and Sri Lanka in failing to provide paid leave for workers. With FMLA serving as the only workplace protection in place across many states, it's important to mention that 40% of expecting mothers do not even qualify for these protections, leaving them with no guarantees of keeping their jobs let alone enough time postpartum to fully recover. The continued lack of a federal paid leave policy hurts more and more expectant mothers as an increasing amount of the workforce moves towards part-time and freelance work (which makes them even less likely to qualify for existing FMLA protections).

With that being said, more states are adding paid family and maternity leave guarantees for workers, with Colorado beginning their program in 2024, and Delaware, Maine, Maryland, and Minnesota beginning programs in 2026. While even more state-led programs are expected in the future (in lieu of federal government action) millions of expecting and new mothers continue to fall through the cracks. Even worse for these mothers, the rising U.S. maternal mortality rate means new mothers are 10 times for likely to die due to pregnancy and postpartum complications than mothers in similarly high-income countries around the world. Not only does the lack of paid maternity leave create an economically impossible situation for many families, but in too many cases, the lack of paid leave is killing women.