Maternity leave refers to the period of time that a birthing parent or new mother takes off work to give birth, recover, care for, and bond with their new baby. In some cases, it applies when adopting a child too.
Some countries use the term “parental leave” instead of maternity and paternity leave. Both birthing and non-birthing parents may require time off from work to care for a newborn or recently adopted child.
Eligibility, length of leave, and whether the leave is paid or unpaid are dictated by maternity leave laws that differ by country and state.
Is it mandatory to provide maternity leave?
Maternity leave is defined in local employment law and differs from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.
In the UK, it is a statutory requirement for employers to provide pregnant employees 52 weeks (12-month period) of maternity leave.
In the US, maternity leave is not mandatory under federal law. However, under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) enforced by The US Department of Labor (DOL) administers, all employees of companies with at least 50 employees are eligible for 12 weeks of unpaid leave each year for things like serious illness, the birth of a child, or caring for a family member.
US companies may require employees to use all their vacation time, sick leave, and personal days before taking unpaid FMLA leave.
Who is entitled to maternity leave?
In many countries, maternity leave is available to eligible employees birthing, adopting, or fostering a child.
Eligibility requirements that a full-time or part-time employee must meet to qualify for statutory maternity leave may include:
The employee’s length of continuous service with their employer
The employee’s contribution to certain state funds, such as national insurance
The size of the employer (e.g., number of employees in the company)
Sometimes notice periods and proof of pregnancy are required too.
How long is maternity leave?
Again, the length of maternity leave differs from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.
The International Labor Organization (ILO)’s Maternity Protection Convention mandates a minimum leave period of 14 weeks (with cash benefit) but recommends leave of at least 18 weeks. The average maternity leave among OECD countries is 18 weeks, including pay.
For example, birthing parents are entitled to 52 weeks of maternity leave in the UK. The first 26 weeks are known as ordinary maternity leave and the last 26 weeks as additional maternity leave. Additional maternity leave is available to those who want more time off work than just ordinary maternity leave. Additional leave begins immediately after ordinary maternity leave ends. How much maternity leave a birthing parent takes depends on individual circumstances.
Bulgaria offers one of the most generous maternity leave provisions globally, with 58.6 weeks of leave at 90% of the average wage. On the other end of the spectrum, the US offers 0 weeks of maternity leave, with just 12 weeks of statutory leave.
When does maternity leave start?
Maternity leave often starts before the employee has given birth. While some jurisdictions enforce specific start dates for maternity leave, others do not. For example, in Austria, mothers must take leave eight weeks before the baby’s due date.
Do employees get paid during maternity leave?
In most countries, employees receive some form of maternity pay/ paid parental leave or maternity leave benefits or allowance.
Many countries also offer job-protected leave without pay, which employees can take after paid maternity leave ends.
The US doesn’t include any legal provision for paid maternity leave. However, in New York, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Oregon, Massachusetts, California, Colorado, Connecticut, and Washington District of Columbia, state laws qualify birthing parents for paid family and medical leave and short-term disability leave through disability insurance programs.
Similarly, Papua New Guinea offers no statutory maternity pay, opting for just six weeks of unpaid leave instead.
Who pays for maternity leave?
Local regulations determine who pays for maternity pay - either the employer, the state (through social security), or a combination of the two.
In Nigeria, for example, maternity pay is paid entirely by the employer. In contrast, in Spain, Norway, and France, maternity is paid by social security.
The UK uses a combination of public funds and employer liability to pay for maternity leave. Employers are responsible for paying their employees Statutory Maternity Pay (SMP) through payroll. Still, they can often reclaim 92% of it from HMRC, the UK tax authority.
Do employees still receive benefits while on maternity leave?
The answer is complex and depends on where the employee is based.
In the UK, for example, employees are entitled to all their usual rights and contractual benefits during paid maternity leave, except for wages.
In some US states, employers must continue to provide health insurance for employees on FMLA leave as long as they continue to pay their premiums during their leave.
Should you provide maternity leave?
Companies that want to attract and retain the best talent and promote diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace should provide a maternity or parental leave program.
As part of an employee benefits package, a generous maternity leave policy enables new parents to afford to take sufficient time off to recover and look after their new child. Caring for employees in this way helps to improve employee satisfaction and retention over the long term.