Maternity leave refers to a period of time in which a mother temporarily stops working following the birth or adoption of a baby. Employers can also offer a similar benefit called paternity leave for expectant fathers or a single benefit known as parental leave. In the U.S., parental leave is covered under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), but whether leave is paid or unpaid can depend on your employer. In terms of how the U.S. compares to Canada, there are some distinct differences in maternity leave policies.

Key Takeaways

  • Maternity leave and paternity leave allow parents to take time off from work following the birth or adoption of a baby.
  • In the U.S., parental leave guidelines are established under the Family and Medical Leave Act.
  • Employers in the U.S. are not required to offer paid parental leave for mothers or fathers, though some do to attract and retain employees.
  • Compared to the U.S., Canada's parental leave policy is more generous in terms of duration, flexibility, and paid benefits.

Parental Leave in the U.S. vs. Canada: An Overview

The United States is part of a very exclusive group, but not for the reasons you might suspect. Among 40+ countries, including Switzerland, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Canada, and Japan, it's the only one that offers no paid maternity or paternity leave to expecting parents.

This is despite the fact that seven in 10 Americans support the idea of paid maternity and paternity leave. U.S. employers are also recognizing the need for this type of employee benefit. According to the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), 55% of employers now offer paid maternity leave while 45% offer paid paternity leave.

Offering paid leave can make it easier for employers to attract and retain talent while improving employee health and wellness and employee engagement.

Compared to Canada's, the U.S. parental leave policy at the federal level is notably lacking. The Canadian system provides at least a partial ongoing income for up to a year to give families time to adjust to the new addition, as well as a guarantee of reemployment after a lengthy leave.

Parental Leave in Canada

The Canadian government mandates both leave and a benefits component, the latter of which is administered by provincial employment insurance plans. Under the terms of the federal leave program, parents can take advantage of standard or extended benefits. The one you choose can determine the number of weeks you're eligible to receive benefits and how much you receive.

These benefits are designed for people who are away from work because they're pregnant or have recently given birth or those who are away from work to care for a newborn or newly adopted child. Employers are required to accept employees who take advantage of federal parental leave benefits back into their jobs (or the equivalent) at the end of the mandated leave at the same rate of pay with the same employment benefits.

Maternity benefits

Maternity benefits are available to the person who is away from work because they're pregnant or have recently given birth. Someone who's receiving maternity benefits may also be entitled to parental benefits.

If you're eligible for maternity benefits you can receive benefits equal to 55% of your average weekly insurable wage, up to a maximum of $595 per week. This benefit is paid for 15 weeks.

Parental benefits

Parental benefits can be paid to the parents of a newborn or newly adopted child. That includes mothers who are taking maternity benefits. You can choose between standard parental benefits or extended parental benefits.

Parental benefits can be shared between parents. If you plan to share them, you both have to choose standard or extended benefits. Here's how the two options compare.

Standard vs. Extended Parental Benefits in Canada
 Benefit  Maximum Weeks  Benefit Rate  Weekly Maximum
 Standard Up to 40 weeks, but one parent cannot receive more than 35 weeks of standard benefits  55%  Up to $595
Extended  Up to 69 weeks, but one parent cannot receive more than 61 weeks of extended benefits  33%  Up to $357

So, for example, a new mother could take the full 15 weeks of maternity benefits she's allowed. She could also take an additional 35 weeks of standard parental benefits. If she were to choose extended parental benefits instead, she'd be able to take 61 weeks in addition to her 15 weeks of maternity benefits. Altogether, she'd qualify for 76 weeks of leave.

Note

Parents who are eligible for maternity benefits or parental benefits should receive their first payment approximately 28 days after submitting all required information.

Maternity and Parental Leave in the United States

In the United States, the picture for families-to-be is very different. The federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) signed into law in 1993 requires employers to provide up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for several medical conditions, as well as the birth of a baby.

To be eligible for unpaid maternity or parental leave, you must:

  • Have worked for their employer for at least 12 months
  • Have worked at least 1,250 hours over the past 12 months
  • Work at a location where the company employs 50 or more employees within 75 miles

If the parent has pre-birth complications, she may be able to take part of the leave under the medical component. Before the law was enacted, the U.S. had no laws requiring that employers provide any leave. There are still gaping holes in the FMLA, however.

For example, the act exempts small employers defined as those having fewer than 50 employees from having to offer unpaid leave. Though it's worth noting that a few states, including California and New Jersey, include pregnancy benefits as part of the state's disability insurance plan, which provides at least a partial offset of lost income.

California, for instance, offers up to four weeks of paid leave for normal pregnancies and up to eight weeks for mothers who undergo a cesarean section. Though that's helpful, it still falls far short of the benefits afforded to Canadian parents.

Tip

If you're planning to take maternity or parental leave, check with both your employer and your state's employment commission to see what types of benefits may be available.

The Bottom Line

Though the FMLA in the U.S. allows at least a brief window for mothers to recuperate and care for a child after birth or adoption, there is no federal or state law mandating pregnancy benefits.

The downside of the lack of pregnancy leave and benefits in the United States is significant. Not only does a mother need time to physically recover after giving birth, but families also need time to adjust to new routines and sleep patterns. If a mother has to rush back to work after giving birth because she cannot afford the lack of a paycheck, she may not be as effective at her job compared to if she was rested and had her family life settled.

Because the Canadian government provides benefits and leave for employees, new mothers and fathers can take paid leave and be confident that they will have jobs waiting for them at the end of the leave period. When it comes to pregnancy benefits, Canada is a much more generous country.

Maternity and Parental Leave FAQs

Does the U.S. mandate paid maternity or parental leave?

No, it does not. In fact, it's the only developed country in the world that doesn't offer parents some type of paid leave benefits.

How long is the average maternity leave?

The U.S. offers 12 weeks of unpaid maternity leave or parental leave. But the average maternity leave may be shorter as parents head back to work to make up for lost earnings. For example, the typical maternity leave for women is around 10 weeks.

What is parental leave?

Parental leave refers to time that parents can take off from work for reasons related to child care. This may include the care of a newborn but it can also be used in situations in which care is required for adopted children or older children who are still minors.

Do I get paid for parental leave?

Whether you're paid for parental leave or not can depend on your employer and whether they offer those benefits to employees. Again, the U.S. does not require companies to offer workers paid parental leave or maternity leave benefits.