Labor and Employment

Parental & Pregnancy Leave for New Parents

By Lisa Guerin, ​J.D., Boalt Hall at the University of California at Berkeley
Learn whether you're entitled to paid or unpaid time for the birth of your child.

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One of the greatest challenges facing American workers today is balancing work and family, particularly when it comes to parenting. These days, most parents work—and fathers are increasingly involved in caring for and raising their children. This means employers are likely to receive requests for parental leave from both men and women. Whether employees are entitled to this time off depends on a number of factors, including the employer’s policies and federal and state law.

Unpaid Parental Leave

Under the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (FMLA), companies must give qualifying employees 12 weeks of unpaid leave each year for certain family-related or medical reasons. The FMLA applies to most employers with 50 or more employees, as well as public agencies. To be eligible, employees must have worked for the company for at least one year and for at least 1,250 hours in the year preceding the leave.

The FMLA allows employees to take leave:

  • while unable to work due to pregnancy and childbirth
  • to bond with a new child (any time during that child's first 12 months of life)
  • following the adoption of a child or placement of a foster child (within 12 months of the child's placement), or
  • to care for a child with a serious health condition.

Many states have laws similar to the FMLA, which may apply to smaller employers or provide additional time off. Other states may also require employers to provide leave for pregnancy disability, or require employers to make equal leave available to adoptive parents if they provide leave to biological parents. Employers must follow whichever law, whether state or federal, that provides the most protections to employees. (For more information on the FMLA, including eligibility requirements, see Taking Leave Under the Family and Medical Leave Act.)

Paid Parental Leave

The United States is one of the few developed countries in the world that doesn't guarantee paid parental leave to working mothers and fathers. Some employers, however, voluntarily offer their employees paid family leave, including leave for parenting and pregnancy-related medical conditions. According to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, 13% of employers made paid family leave available to their employees in 2014.

Some employers offer paid medical leave to female employees who are unable to work due to pregnancy, child birth, and related medical conditions. (For more information, see Laws Protecting Pregnant Employees.) Because these are conditions that affect only women, companies are not required to offer the same paid leave to new fathers.

In addition to, or instead of, offering paid medical leave, some employers offer paid parenting leave for employees to care for a new child. Because men and women are both able to take advantage of this leave, employers must offer that same leave to new mothers and fathers. To do otherwise would be sex discrimination, illegal under the Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Similarly, employers that offer paid parenting leave following the adoption of a child must provide the same leave opportunities to both fathers and mothers.

A few states require employers to provide at least a few days of paid sick leave each year to eligible employees. In California, for example, employees accrue one hour of paid sick leave for every 30 hours worked, and they can use that leave for the diagnosis, care, or treatment of a health condition. Some cities also have paid sick leave laws. An employee who is unable to work due to pregnancy and childbirth can use her accumulated sick leave to be paid for this time.

A handful of states also have temporary disability and/or family leave programs. These insurance programs don’t require employers to give time off in the first place, but they do provide partial wage replacements to employees who are otherwise entitled to time off due to disability (including pregnancy) or because they need to care for a family member (including a new baby). One or both of these state insurance programs are available in California, Hawaii, New Jersey, New York, and Rhode Island.

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