Paid Maternity Leave Isn’t US Law—But It’s a Priority at These Companies

NEWS WEEK | Aisha Wells, the deputy director of organizing for advocacy group Mothering Justice, returned a little more than two months ago from maternity leave after the birth of her second child.

When she had her first child more than 17 years ago, Wells was working in retail and only able to take six weeks of unpaid leave to care for her son, who was born with special needs and multiple disabilities. There were profound differences between that first experience expanding her family and the more recent time, when she had paid maternity leave.

“You shouldn’t have to be worried about putting food on the table. You know, ‘How much is this?'” she told Newsweek. “Will I miss groceries? Will I miss utilities? Will I miss my mortgage or my rent?”

Her current organization, a Detroit-based group helping mothers of color effect policy change in the U.S., allows for 14 weeks of paid leave to accommodate the birth of a child. Wells said that support has been crucial.

“Before I got to Mothering Justice, it was never even a real possibility in my mind to have another child, you know, because [of] all the struggles I went through with finding child care for my [first] son,” she said. “And I had some health problems after having my second son, and being able to be at the hospital and not worry about bills—all of those things were completely of no concern to me at all. That was the biggest difference.”

Paid maternity leave is not guaranteed in the U.S. It’s a benefit that only some women have—27 percent of the country’s civilian workforce, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Those who do have it say it has been invaluable for expanding their families.

A recent ranking compiled by Newsweek and market data research firm Plant-A lists the country’s Greatest Workplaces for Women. One of the major factors that informed the ranking was companies’ maternity leave policies.

While a company’s handling of maternity leave wasn’t the only attribute that determined whether it landed on the ranking, it was part of the equation and was considered through the prism of work-life balance. Other categories analyzed included compensation, training and career progression, and transparency and trust within the corporate culture.

Amsterdam-based digital marketing firm DEPT® Agency, which operates offices worldwide and works with clients including Google, KFC and Audi, was singled out by Plant-A in an email to Newsweek as one of the five-star companies that received a high evaluation in the area of parental leave.

DEPT® offers primary caregiver leave, which is up to 12 paid weeks for parents, to allow time for caring for newborns or newly placed adopted children. The company also has policies in place for pregnancy losses, infertility treatments, and pre- and postnatal care.

In an interview with Newsweek, DEPT® Global COO Missy Foristall and Marlena Edwards, the company’s U.S. head of people and culture, discussed how their company’s maternity leave policy impacts its workers.

“What makes, I think, DEPT® attractive to women is really the fact that we really are focusing on the resources that empower women and their life balance,” Edwards said. “Leaning in and talking about how we support whether you’re a long-time parent, a very new parent or just navigating a career, we have that support mechanism…within our culture.”

“We also make sure that when we’re thinking about family planning as a whole, that we are talking about all of those options as well,” Edwards said. “Whether that means there’s a financial burden or pregnancy termination, we are thinking about it holistically, not just focusing on, really, the birth of a child.”

Legally, the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), signed by President Bill Clinton in 1993, allows eligible employees to take unpaid, job-protected leave for up to 12 weeks during any yearlong period to care for a newborn or upon placement of an adopted or fostered child.

The U.S. is one of just a handful of countries in the world that do not offer paid parental leave, joining the likes of Tonga, Papua New Guinea, the Marshall Islands, Palau, Nauru and Micronesia.

One requirement to be eligible for the unpaid leave includes having worked for the employer for at least a year. Eligible employees must also have worked at least 1,250 hours during the 12 months prior to taking the unpaid leave, and they must work at a location where the employer has 50 or more employees within 75 miles. The Bureau of Labor Statistics says 90 percent of workers have access to this unpaid leave.

DEPT® Global COO Foristall added that, for new mothers, the most difficult days are when they’re back in the office.

“The hard part starts when you go back to work because you have to balance…you’re not sleeping, you’re having to find day care, whatever it may be, to do it,” she said. “So we want to make sure that we’re looking out for those moms who have just returned to make sure that we’re helping them in any way we can to make that balance a little bit easier.”

Some countries, including Estonia, Japan, Hungary and Norway, provide more than a year of paid parental leave, though the amount a woman is paid may not be her full salary but rather a portion of it.

“There are a lot of different countries that will offer months of leave, up to even years…because they know that it’s such a huge moment and it can change everything for a woman,” Brittani Bromley, a certified nurse midwife and nurse administrator at Rasmussen University, told Newsweek in an interview. “And there’s such a long timeframe for healing, and not just physical healing, but also just that emotional and mental aspect.”

Monika Cox, the executive vice president and manager of talent practices and employee rewards at Liberty Mutual, another five-star entry on our ranking, answered questions via email and told Newsweek, “We know how exciting it is to grow and expand a family and recognize how important it is to take time away to bond with a new baby, an adoptive or foster child and want to provide employees with the time they need to focus on their family.”

To do that, Liberty Mutual company offers eight weeks of bonding leave to parents of newly born, adopted or foster children, in addition to eight weeks of short-term disability leave for childbirth.

Cox also said that returning from parental leave “is a big transition,” and she outlined how the insurance company takes steps to help parents who are returning to work.

“We offer a free membership to a caregiving service to help employees find care providers for children,” she said. “We provide a service for nursing mothers who are traveling for work to ship their breast milk home to their child(ren). For those who work from an office, we provide lactation rooms throughout our campus.”

Liberty Mutual also allows for hybrid work options, compressed workweeks, flex time and part-time working arrangements. And uniquely, the company has also made a “manager toolkit” to help new parents on leave feel connected. The toolkit gives managers guidance on how to communicate in a way that allows employees space, but also helps them maintain a sense of engagement.

Home Depot, which also achieved a five-star rating, got in touch with Newsweek via email to describe its maternity leave policy: six weeks of paid parental leave for both parents, with birth mothers eligible for up to eight additional weeks of leave. The company also touted its related benefits, including backup care, babysitting, discounts and education support.

Elaine Zuckerman, who works for an early learning nonprofit in North Carolina, recently had her second child and took maternity leave from October 2023 through early March of this year. She said having paid maternity leave was a “game changer,” particularly because of time she had to spend in the hospital with complications.

Zuckerman added that, for her first child, she did not have paid maternity leave. Instead, she qualified for FMLA leave back then and received short-term disability for about six weeks. The rest of her 12-week leave was a mixture of PTO and unpaid hours. Having paid maternity leave for the birth of her second child made for a more restorative experience.

“My postpartum recovery—physically and emotionally—was so much easier and smoother because I didn’t feel rushed,” she said, in reference to her most recent pregnancy. “Having a baby, whether it’s your first or your fifth, is a huge adjustment, and knowing that we had several months to bond as a family without the added stress of financial concerns made a huge difference in our overall health and happiness.”

Rasmussen University’s Bromley singled out California and New Jersey as examples of U.S. states where paid maternity leave is guaranteed at the state level. They are two among nine such states currently, although four more have programs in the works.

Those nine states—California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Washington, Colorado, Oregon and New York—have active programs offering 12 weeks of paid parental leave, except for Rhode Island, which has six weeks, and California, which has eight weeks.

Delaware, Maryland, Minnesota and Maine have passed guaranteed paid leave policies that are currently inactive but slated to become active by 2026.

Elevance Health, an insurance provider who achieved a five-star rating on Newsweek‘s ranking, explained its maternity leave benefits over email.

“Elevance Health supports the whole health of parents and babies and looks for opportunities to improve maternal health outcomes by offering programs that attend to women’s social and behavioral health care needs,” the company said. “For Elevance Health associates, benefits and support extends from family planning to menopause, including no-cost virtual access to 30+ provider types—OB-GYNs, nutritionists, doulas, lactation consultants, parenting coaches—plus tailored content based on associates’ needs.”

Elevance said its health plans also include adoption and surrogacy reimbursement and paid time off for all new parents after births or adoption. The company added that it reviews and adjusts its benefits on a cyclical basis.

Overall, advocates believe that the advantages provided by maternity leave could prove to be well worth its cost.

“There’s actually been studies that show providing paid leave could actually be cost effective in the long run: retention. You keep the employees you have,” Linda Clark Ashar, an attorney and professor at American Public University, told Newsweek. “It costs money to replace employees, train them, get them up to speed. That is a soft cost that employers tend to overlook.”

Insurance company New York Life, which also landed a top spot on our ranking, announced on January 2 that it is doubling the length of its Paid New Parent benefit, from four to eight weeks.

“This extended benefit is an addition to the existing six weeks of paid leave offered to birthing parents through our short-term disability program plan, typically bringing their total to up to 14 weeks of paid time off,” the company said in a release, adding that the disability program’s payments may vary based on medical circumstance.

The Best Place for Working Parents, a network of business leaders pursuing strategies that jointly benefit working parents and their employers, released its National Trends Report in autumn 2023, which included data on how paid maternity leave helps women stay in their current position. The report found that first-time mothers using paid leave are 32 percent less likely to leave their jobs “before or after childbirth.” Also, those new mothers are 19 percent more likely to go back to their employer once their leave has ended.

Rasmussen’s Bromley said the argument that companies sometimes make against mandating paid maternity leave is that it would lead to women not staying in the workforce or to less productivity. She said research has shown, though, that those concerns have not come to pass.

“We’re not having those results from what we see in other countries and the couple of states that have implemented better maternity leaves—those outcomes don’t exist,” she said. “So I’m happy to be seeing that. Because I think we need to voice that more often.”

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