Parental leave: The basics you need to know - Resources

Parental leave: The basics you need to know

How does parental leave work? From how much time you get to whether or not you get paid, here’s a breakdown of what you can expect when it comes to parental leave.

As if preparing for a new baby wasn’t stressful enough, parents-to-be are also tasked with trying to figure out their parental leave. Does their company provide it? How long can they take? Will they be paid while they’re out?

Unfortunately, in the U.S., there’s not a cut and dried answer since there’s no federal maternity or paternity leave law. While progress has been made in the past few decades, much of a person’s parental leave depends on factors like where they live and their company.

“There really aren’t any simple answers when it comes to questions about parental leave,” says Ruth Martin, senior vice president and chief justice workplace officer at MomsRising. “A lot of it is luck — if you’re lucky to live in one of 13 states that have made parental leave mandatory or if you have a good employer.” 

From how much time you get to whether or not you get paid, here’s a breakdown of what you can expect when it comes to parental leave.  

“A lot of parents use their parental leave to establish a breastfeeding schedule, settle, recover and line up child care.”


What is parental leave?

Parental leave, sometimes referred to as maternity or paternity leave, is “time away from work to welcome a new child into your home, regardless of how — birth, adoption or foster,” explains Martin. This time, Martin continues, is to help your family adjust to a new child, bond and/or recover from birth.

“A lot of parents use their parental leave to establish a breastfeeding schedule, settle, recover and line up child care.”

How long is parental leave?

Here’s where things get confusing. While you may have heard that 12 weeks is the national standard for parental leave, that doesn’t necessarily apply to everyone (which, yes, is demoralizing). To find out exactly how much time you get personally — could be more, could be less — you’re going to have to do a little digging (more on where to dig below), but here’s some insight. 

The Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which was passed in 1993, provides up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected time off of work after the welcoming of a new child. “However, there are certain criteria you and your company need to meet for these 12 weeks to be guaranteed,” says Martin. 

According to the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL), employees are eligible for FMLA if:

  • They have worked for their employer for at least 12 months.
  • They’ve worked at least 1,250 hours over the past 12 months.
  • Their company employs 50 or more employees within 75 miles. 

Martin also notes that FMLA can sometimes be used for time taken off during pregnancy (for instance, if you’re on bed rest). However, that time will then be deducted from your 12 weeks post-birth. 

Again, though, keep in mind that this is just a general picture. Not all states or employers have stuck with the bare minimum FMLA model. In Minnesota, unpaid job protection is guaranteed for employees with companies that have at least 21 employees, as opposed to 50.

And Netflix’s maternity and paternity leave policy reportedly guarantees employees one year of job protected time off — and it’s fully paid. 

Is parental leave paid?

No, not always. While the FMLA guarantees job (and benefit) protection (for certain employees), only certain states (and the District of Columbia) have implemented paid parental leave laws.

The following states/districts currently offer paid leave:

  • California
  • Connecticut
  • District of Columbia 
  • Massachusetts
  • New Jersey
  • New York
  • Rhode Island
  • Virginia
  • Washington

The following states have enacted paid leave laws not currently in effect:

  • Colorado
  • Delaware
  • Maryland
  • New Hampshire
  • Oregon

These states all offer (or will soon offer) paid leave, however, that doesn’t necessarily translate to full pay. “No state offers 100% wage replacement,” Martin explains, adding that some use a “progressive wage replacement tool.” 

“This means that lower income folks get a higher percentage of their wage during their time off, while higher income families get less,” she explains. The alternative is a flat rate, where all employees receive the same percentage of their income.

That said, while states don’t guarantee 100% pay, that’s not to say your employer does not (seeing a theme here?). The only way to find out exactly what you’ll get paid if you live in one of the states above (or even if you don’t!) is to speak with your human resources department. But, Martin notes, “do some digging ahead of time,” so you’re not going in blind. 

If you live in one of the states with guaranteed paid leave, check out the Bipartisan Policy Center’s chart that breaks down a number of things, including your potential payroll deduction rate. 

Can parental leave be extended?

There are ways to extend your parental leave, depending on your particular benefits, how long you’ve been at your company and how many days of paid time off (PTO) you’ve accrued. A few ways parents sometimes extend their leave is by using:

  • Vacation days
  • Sick days
  • Personal days 

Another potential option is to use short-term disability insurance (STD), which can cover between half and all of your salary for an allotted period of time after welcoming a child. Again, though, each state and company have different rules in regards to this; and it’s worth noting that the technical purpose of FMLA is to protect your job, while the purpose of STD is to guarantee you pay.

In New York, new parents can use both FMLA and STD, if approved, but not at the same time.

“Parenting pressures don’t get any easier after that newborn phase, so employees really need to think about how they can advocate for their needs beyond that initial sprint.”


Does parental leave (FMLA) need to be taken in one chunk?

No! “FMLA does not have to be taken in a chunk; it can be used episodically,” Martin says. “But there is a minimum increment.” 

According to the DOL: “FMLA leave may be taken in periods of whole weeks, single days, hours and, in some cases, even less than an hour.” Ask your employer what their increments are for FMLA.

Also important to know: When using FMLA as parental leave, it must be used within a year of the baby’s birth or placement. 

However, as Lauren Hobbs, chief marketing officer of New York City child care center Vivvi, notes, while initial parental leave is a critical benefit, “it only addresses a very limited phase of parenting.” 

“Parenting pressures don’t get any easier after that newborn phase, so employees really need to think about how they can advocate for their needs beyond that initial sprint,” she says. “Find out what your company offers in terms of transitioning back to work, and beyond that, flexibility, manager support and child care benefits. A truly supportive workplace should address the evolving needs for the marathon that ensues after parental leave.”

In other words: Figure out what works best for your changing life and your family and ask for it. While you may not get a Netflix-style parental leave, consider inquiring, for instance, about working from home.

Parental leave resources

Figuring out the specifics of parental leave can feel overwhelming, so consider these resources before speaking with your HR department and determining what may work best:

A final note 

Some facts about parental leave in the U.S. feel very bleak. “One in four women go back to work within two weeks of giving birth,” says Martin. But things are moving in the right direction. 

“There’s been a cultural shift in the last few years and pressure is being put on elected officials,” notes Martin, adding that we’re “really close to getting four weeks paid leave in the reconciliation package.” 

“We will get it across the finish line,” she adds. “I firmly believe that we’re on the precipice of getting paid leave in this country. We’re going to get to a place where we have some paid leave as a nationwide standard — and we’re going to get it done by talking about it more.”