Maternity Leave in the United States: Its History and What’s to Come

Anne Shaw

At some point in most women’s lives, they’ll need Maternity Leave. I’ve taken two. Using that time both to care for and bond with my babies, and to heal and adjust was priceless—figuratively.

When you looked at our finances, it definitely came at a cost. Why is the U.S.—one of the wealthiest nations in the world—so behind other countries? To understand the answer to that, we’d need to map out an entire docuseries. For now, let’s touch on the history of Maternity Leave in the U.S. Then we’ll cover general Maternity Leave policies in the U.S., how it compares globally and what may be on the way for American women.

History of Maternity Leave

Before there was pregnancy discrimination in the workplace, there was marriage discrimination. Against married women, that is. U.S. employers used marriage bars in many professions from the 1880s into the 1950s.

In many U.S. states, once a woman married, she was barred from working. These rules made it legally permissible to fire a woman as soon as she said, “I do.” This practice kept women’s pay low. It also meant that businesses could avoid employing someone who might need time off for childbearing and nursing.

In the midst of the Great Depression during the 1930s, employers began to reason that marriage bars even had a moral argument. Many believed that working married women were stealing jobs from men who needed to support their families and from single women who needed to support themselves. They also claimed that married women only worked for “pin money,” or frivolous spending.

The U.S. government’s Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins promoted this idea. In doing so, she spurred on decades of workplace discrimination against married women. Ironically Perkins was an employed married woman herself.

While marriage bars eventually fell out of style, it was still commonplace into the 1970s to discriminate against pregnant women. It wasn’t until 1978 that Congress enacted the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA).

The PDA prohibits employers from discriminating against pregnant women. It also protects women with conditions related to recent childbirth. Unfortunately, this act didn’t get traction until the late 1980s. The PDA brought pregnant women’s rights forward, but their jobs were left virtually unprotected once they had their babies.

Current U.S. Practices for Maternity Leave

The Family and Medical Leave Act

The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) is the closest thing Americans have to a national Parental Leave policy. It was signed into law in 1993 after advocates negotiated for nine years, accepting amendments that cut back their initial plans.

Under FMLA, qualifying employees who work for covered organizations can take up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave. They can do so either for personal medical reasons or to care for a family member, including new babies and adopted children. With the passage of FMLA, many (though not all) American mothers could finally take time off to care for their new babies without losing their jobs. They often lost income, however, and still do.

Even if they do qualify for unpaid leave under FMLA, many moms can’t afford to take it.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, nearly 80% of workers do not have access to a company-sponsored or state-mandated paid leave. And 60% of workers don’t have access to Short-Term Disability Insurance that covers a percentage of their salary for a portion of their leave. This means that the majority of moms who take Maternity Leave do so at the expense of their income.

Leave advocates had hoped that FMLA would be expanded after the initial hurdle of getting it passed. Despite those early hopes, however, FMLA remains largely the same. Nothing has been added that resembles universal paid leave, a wider definition of who is covered, an expansion of companies that must comply under the law, or an extension of the 12 weeks’ job-protected leave. Due to the difficulty of expanding FMLA, over the last several years leave advocates have been working at state and city levels with better success.

A handful of states and many companies now offer longer Maternity Leave benefits —some with pay.

The following States/jurisdictions have passed some form of legally mandated Paid Family and Medical Leave

  • California
  • Colorado*
  • Connecticut
  • District of Columbia
  • Massachusetts
  • New Jersey
  • New York
  • Oregon
  • Rhode Island
  • Washington

*Colorado passed legislation in 2020 to create a PFML program.

The Federal Employee Paid Leave Act

The Federal Employee Paid Leave Act was signed into law on October 1, 2020. Now many Federal civilian employees who qualify for FMLA will receive paid job-protected leave for 12 weeks. This may be the federal government’s nod to the importance of Paid Parental Leave, but there is only very slow movement towards an expanded, universal federal paid family leave law.  And there’s no guarantee of when that will happen or how it will look.  So, we’re left with a confusing patchwork of Leave policies across the nation.  Depending on where they live or which company they work for, some American mothers get extended and paid Maternity Leave.

Wondering what constitutes “qualifying employees” and “covered employers” when it comes to FMLA? Due to the narrow definitions of these terms, not every American worker qualifies for job-protected leave under FMLA. You are eligible for FMLA if you:

  • Work at a company with 50 or more employees
  • Have been with your employer for at least one year
  • Have worked at least 1,250 hours (about 31 weeks) within the 12 months of taking leave

How U.S. Maternity Leave Compares Globally

The vast majority of countries around the world offer some form of Maternity Leave on a national level. Most often, it’s paid. And many countries go beyond Maternity Leave. They also offer Paid Parental and Home Care Leave that parents can use to extend their time beyond the traditional Maternity Leave. Below are examples of Maternity Leave programs and policies around the world. [LEG(M3] Some have been in place for almost eight decades, dating back to World War II.


The World Health Organization recommends that mothers exclusively breastfeed their babies for at least six months. As you can see, many of these nations’ leave policies make it possible for new moms to do just that. Some even extend their offerings to fathers in the form of Paternity Leave.

What’s Next for U.S. Maternity Leave?

Now that pandemic-related remote working situations have outed “secret parenting“—the pressure that working parents feel to downplay their role as caregivers—support for parents in the workplace has likely grown even stronger.

As much as half of U.S. companies have begun offering their own forms of Paid Parental Leave (that includes dads!) as part of their benefits packages. This Leave generally begins after Short-term Disability ends. Often this unique perk came about as a way to attract and retain valuable talent in a tight labor market. Why? Women are more likely to stay at a company that offers paid Maternity Leave. Men are increasingly interested in Paternity Leave. Translation: More people are drawn to Parental Leave policies than ping pong tables and free lunches. Plus, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) requires employers to offer the same amount of time off for bonding and childcare to new fathers as they do new mothers.

Another Glimmer of Hope Lies Beyond Individual Company Policies

Advocates of federally mandated Parental Leave have reintroduced the Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act (FAMILY Act) to Congress. If passed, working Americans would receive up to 66% of their pay (capped at a certain amount) during 12 weeks of job-protected Family and Medical leave. The FAMILY Act would also cover more people than FMLA does. If passed, even part-time and self-employed workers will be eligible for partially Paid Leave.

While the U.S. currently remains the last “wealthy” nation without mandated paid Maternity Leave, many are hopeful that these encouraging signs could mean that future parents will be better off.


Short-term Disability insurance, whether provided by an employer or voluntarily purchased by an individual, is frequently the source of paid benefits for women recovering from childbirth. In fact, 25% of all short-term disability claims are related to pregnancy and maternity.

Legal/Leave Law Disclosure: This informational material shall not be considered legal advice. The Hartford assumes no responsibility for legal compliance with respect to your business practices, and the views and recommendations contained herein shall not constitute our undertaking on your behalf, or for the benefit of others, to determine or warrant that your business operations are in compliance with any law, rule, or regulation. Those seeking resolution of specific legal or business issues, questions, or concerns regarding this topic should consult their own attorney or business advisors.

Leave a Reply

Disclaimer: Comments are subject to moderation and removal without cause or justification and may take up to 24 hours to be seen in comments. Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked * Please do not include personal policy information; if you have questions or concerns regarding your policy with The Hartford, please log into your account or you can speak directly to a Customer Service Representative.

%d bloggers like this: