Maternity Leave: Your Rights As a Working Mother

This Sunday, Americans will celebrate Mother’s Day.  The holiday encourages us to honor the women who give us love, support, and care during the early years of life and beyond.  However, providing so much nurturing is not easy, especially in the beginning.  Women take maternity leave after giving birth to recover from labor and to bond with the baby.  However, maternity leave policies in the United States are extremely stingy.  Sadly, these skimpy maternity leave policies have a disparate impact on African American women. 


Maternity Leave Statistics

At present, the United States is the only nation in the developed world that does not guarantee mothers paid maternity leave.  While employers may offer paid family leave as a benefit, they are not required to do so.  As a result, only 14 percent of U.S. civilian workers are eligible to receive paid family leave.  Facing financial pressures which are compounded by a new baby, roughly 25 percent of American women return to work within two weeks of giving birth.  

Though these statistics are concerning, for African American women, the data are downright alarming.  According to the most recent Census Bureau data, Black women are less likely than white women to have access to paid maternity leave.  Consequently, the Bureau found that Black women are more likely than white women to quit, take unpaid leave, or be fired because of a pregnancy.


Impact of Inadequate Maternity Leave

While paid maternity leave may seem like a matter of dollars and cents, the lack of time to recover after birth can have severe consequences for both mom and baby.  Studies have found that short maternity leaves are linked to a variety of maternal health issues, including post-partum depression.  Shorter leaves may also lead to problems with breastfeeding, an issue that affects the infant as well.  Babies born to mothers with unpaid parental leave are more likely to suffer from low birth weight and less likely to complete their full course of recommended immunizations.  In short, paid leave makes a difference for mothers and their new babies. 


What the Law Says about Maternity Leave

When it comes to paid maternity leave, federal law is of little assistance.  The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) was passed in 1993.  The FMLA guarantees twelve weeks of leave for employees after the birth or adoption of a child.  The act marked the first time that American workers were guaranteed any time off for family-related illnesses or events.  However, the law only mandates the twelve weeks of leave; it does not require that the employee be paid while on leave.  However, in America, even this unpaid leave may be difficult to obtain.   

The FMLA does not cover all employers or employees.  The law covers all public employers whether federal, state, or local.  The only private employers are that are automatically subject to the law are private K-12 schools.  For a private employer other than a private school to be subject to the FMLA’s rules, the company must hire more than 50 workers for more than 20 weeks during the prior calendar year. 

For an employee to be eligible for FMLA leave, the employee must have worked for an employer subject to the act for at least 12 months prior to the leave period. Additionally, the employee must have worked a minimum of 1250 hours during that 12-month period.   Finally, the employee must work at a location where the employer maintains at least 50 employees within a 75-mile radius.  In light of the FMLA rules, certain employees in remote offices or employees who work in a 48-person office may be ineligible for FMLA leave.

However, there are some bright lights on the horizon. 

While federal law does not require paid maternity leave, states are beginning to recognize the benefits of the practice.  At present, four states – California, New Jersey, New York, and Rhode Island – mandate paid family leave for all residents.  As this trend grows, more employees will be eligible for paid leave under state law while federal law catches up.

Also, while new mothers may not get paid leave, the law does protect their jobs.  The Pregnancy Discrimination Act in 1978 prevents employers from discriminating against pregnant workers in hiring decisions, promotions, assignments, health insurance and other areas.  Most important, the law requires that if a woman gives birth or takes a pregnancy-related disability leave, her job must be held open for the same period as others on leave who are not pregnant.  

Finally, there are laws that protect the mother while engaging in child-related responsibilities after her return to work.  Under federal law, a nursing mother must be given adequate break times to pump milk and an appropriate, private place to do so.  Significantly, the law states a bathroom is not an appropriate place.  Moreover, as the child grows, many states allow working parents to take time off – usually unpaid – to attend functions at the child’s school or to meet with teachers.


Becoming a mother creates many new responsibilities, but it also gives a woman new legal rights.  If you believe that you have been discriminated against before, during, or after your pregnancy, use the African American Attorney Network to find a qualified attorney near you.

DISCLAIMER:  Nothing contained herein should be construed as legal advice or the creation of an attorney-client relationship.  Should you need legal advice please seek the assistance and advice of an attorney in our directory or one that you locate by other means.