Career & Finance

Paid Family and Medical Leave: What Expectant Parents Should Know

written by RACHEL MORGAN CAUTERO
paid family and medical leave"
paid family and medical leave
Source: Shutterstock
Source: Shutterstock

When New York-based freelance writer Hana LaRock was pregnant with her first baby, her husband’s company offered paid parental leave. While it initially eased her anxiety, the parent leave process ended up being a lot more difficult than she envisioned. “I remember the process being very, very complicated and difficult to navigate,” she said. “It was impossible to get in touch with someone on the phone, and people were not very helpful… It’s different in every state, every job, and every circumstance.”

Paid family leave is when workers can still receive pay (either partial or full) during extended periods off work for qualifying reasons, such as bonding with a new child. But it’s pretty rare. The United States currently has no federal law regarding paid family leave for the private sector—in other words, any non-government companies. But there should be, experts say. Here’s what expectant parents need to know about paid family and medical leave.

Meet the Expert

Rachel Berlin Benjamin

Rachel Berlin Benjamin is an Atlanta-based lawyer and Partner at Beal Sutherland Berlin & Brown.

Meet the Expert

Nikki Innocent

Nikki is a New York-based holistic career and life coach for women navigating the complexities of modern career planning.

The State of Paid Family and Medical Leave in the U.S.

“It’s been proven time and time again that this country is light years behind other countries that provide for family leave,” said Rachel Berlin Benjamin, an Atlanta-based lawyer and partner at Beal Sutherland Berlin & Brown.

“Other countries actually encourage and enact paid family leave with the expectation that families should use it and really take the time off to bond with their families… It seems like the United States prioritizes working over being a parent, and, as a result, we don’t have any federal law providing for paid leave,” said Benjamin, “[G]lobally, we are the only country that does not provide paid leave for new parents.”

LaRock saw this firsthand. “We moved back abroad after our daughter was born, and it is literally insane to me that people in the U.S. only get 12 weeks off, maximum,” she said. “I think it’s really sad that the U.S. not only has minimal leave for full-time workers but that freelancers can’t access it. I had to be back at my computer in two weeks to not lose any of my gigs. I pay taxes and I work; there’s no reason that those benefits shouldn’t be extended to me.”

“[Even] in 2024, we have many expectant parents experiencing shock and turmoil when they are met with the reality that their organization either does not have a family leave policy in place or there are significant hurdles to qualifying for the benefit,” noted New York-based career and life coach Nikki Innocent. 

“Even in 2024, we have many expectant parents experiencing shock and turmoil when they are met with the reality that their organization either does not have a family leave policy in place or there are significant hurdles to qualifying for the benefit.”

Understanding Paid Family and Medical Leave

Paid family leave (PFL) covers not just the birth of a new child, but also bonding with a new child, recovering from illness, or caring for a sick loved one, according to data from the U.S. Department of Labor

The Benefits of Paid Family and Medical Leave

Paid family leave can improve public health, reduce personal stress for workers, and increase equality across different races and socioeconomic statuses. It can also increase family financial stability, encourage bonding with a newborn or adopted child, and even make the transition back to work smoother. For businesses, it can boost productivity and retention of skilled workers. But according to a report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 27 percent of civilian and private industry workers in the United States have access to it

Meet the Expert

Namatie S. Mansaray, M.S.

Senior Director for Workplace Justice at MomsRising, Namatie S. Mansaray is a proud HBCU alumna of Bowie State University where she received her B.S. in Political Science and Drexel University, where she received her M.S. in Public Policy.

 

“[W]omen and working families shouldn’t have to choose between putting food on the table and taking care of themselves or loved ones in times of need,” said Namatie S. Mansaray, Senior Director for Workplace Justice at MomsRising. “Families need a comprehensive and equitable paid family and medical leave program that helps working people maintain their jobs while enabling them to take the time they need to care for themselves and their loved ones.” 

“Only 27 percent of civilian and private industry workers in the United States have access to paid family leave.”

Paid family leave is especially important for Black and Latinx families, she explained. “Black women and Women of Color who bear the brunt of caregiving spend more time over the course of their lives providing unpaid care,” she said. 

The Intangible Benefits of Paid Family Leave

Innocent added, “I believe there are some intangible benefits that are vital to honor and amplify—freedom, flexibility, community support, and inclusion. PFL gives families the freedom to delegate their time, energy, and resources in a way that aligns best with their unique needs as they embark on this new phase of their journey.” she said. “For some, the primary benefit will be the permission to release the energy of their career obligations; for others, [it] will be the dollars and cents of it all to pay for all that is needed to care for a child, and for others, it will be the knowledge that this life milestone is recognized for the valuable and complex reality that it is.”

“For some, the primary benefit [of paid family leave] will be the dollars and cents of it all… and for others, it will be the knowledge that this life milestone is recognized for the valuable and complex reality that it is.”

Types of Family and Medical Leave

There are several different types of family leave, depending on your family’s needs and qualifications.

Maternity Leave

Time off work a new mother takes after the birth of her baby. While FMLA guarantees a new mother up to 12 weeks of maternity leave, that time is unpaid (more on FMLA below).

Paternity Leave

Time off work a new father takes after the birth of a child. They can choose to take paternity leave simultaneously with a mother’s maternity leave or stack their leave to provide more continuous care. New dads are also eligible for FMLA.

Parental Leave

Paid time off for a worker who has to care for a biological child, foster child, or adopted child.

Adoption Leave

Paid time off provided to a worker who has recently adopted a child or is currently in the process.

Caregiver Leave

Paid time off provided to a caregiver who is caring for a spouse, child, or family member with a serious illness.

What is FMLA versus Short-Term Disability?

While the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) of 1993 guarantees workers 12 weeks of unpaid leave during the first year of a new child’s life, it only applies to workers at companies with 50 or more employees. And FMLA is unpaid, which does little to alleviate the economic stress of having a baby. 

“In the United States, workers aren’t guaranteed any paid leave by federal law, and many don’t even have access to unpaid time off,” Innocent said. “The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) of 1993 resulted in a total of 12 work weeks of unpaid leave during the first year after the birth or placement of a child, but it applies only to workers working at larger companies (50+ employees). Unfortunately, the U.S. falls significantly behind many counterparts globally with regard to family leave both in practice and in the overall discourse around the topic.”

On the other hand, Short-Term Disability (STD) pays a portion of your salary when you can’t work, but it doesn’t guarantee job protection as FMLA does. STD is an insurance benefit you have to opt into usually before you’re pregnant. The percentage of your salary paid varies based on individual plans.

“Research whether your state provides for paid leave, and look into your company’s handbook and policies regarding paid leave,” Benjamin suggested. “If your company does not provide for paid leave, perhaps there is a short-term disability possibility you can use to take time off and get a percentage of your pay after childbirth. Unfortunately, though, STD policies would benefit mothers who give birth but don’t provide protection for fathers who want to take paid leave.”

paid family and medical leave
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Understanding Your Rights and Options

Currently, there are 13 states that have passed laws regarding paid family and medical leave: California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Massachusetts, Maryland, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Washington state, and Washington, D.C.

And while the requirements for paid leave vary by company and state, generally, a worker has to be employed for a set period of time, must submit a request as far in advance as possible (sometimes up to 30 days prior), and usually must use up their accrued vacation or PTO before switching over to paid family leave. But expectant parents should refer to their company handbook for more concrete details on their PFL policy. 

“Like many aspects of your compensation package that you skim past when you are first hired, often folks aren’t paying attention to the details of their company’s policy until it’s time to engage with it,” Innocent explained. “Often, organizations don’t have accessible or straightforward information for employees to understand their options, what steps they need to take, or the overall implications of taking the leave if it is offered.”

Know your state and company eligibility criteria

Meet the Expert

Tara Bodine

With two decades on corporate HR teams, Tara Bodine is an HR Expert and Founder of Andover, Massachusetts-based True North People Consulting.

“Understanding the eligibility criteria for each state-paid leave program is crucial,” said Tara Bodine, HR expert and consultant and founder of the Andover, Massachusetts-based True North People Consulting. “Factors such as company size, public or private sector, employment type (self-employed, freelancers, contractors, etc.), length of employment, and earnings (contributed to the payroll tax of the program) all play a role. This knowledge will empower you to plan your leave effectively.” 

Accessing PFL varies by state, but generally, information on how to apply and check your PFL application status is available online. For example, California expectant parents can apply for PFL online via the state’s Employment Development Department

Budget for a period of reduced pay

And don’t forget that even if you qualify for paid leave, it’s usually not your full salary, Bodine noted. “Expectant parents, it’s essential to remember that paid family leave typically covers only a portion of your salary,” she explained. “Therefore, conducting thorough research and planning ahead is key. Valuable information can be found on The Department of Labor and State Government websites, equipping you to make informed decisions.”

Know the difference between paid leave and workplace accommodations

Also worth noting: There is a difference between PFL and workplace accommodation. The former we explained above, while workplace accommodation is an adjustment to one’s job or work environment that makes it possible for a person with a disability to do their job

paid family and medical leave
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Challenges and Considerations

Even if you or your partner do qualify for paid family leave, it’s not always easy. From determining if you qualify for PFL to the application process to the emotional impact of taking time off, it can be a tough transition for new parents.

Workplace stigma

“There is still a stigma associated with taking leave,” Innocent said. “There’s the sentiment that you are leaving your team without the contributions you offer on a daily basis, so they’ll need to pick up the slack while continuing to do their daily job, but also there’s a fear within organization that filters down to everyday employee sentiment that there’s a chance that person won’t return or if they do they’ll be distracted or unable to perform at the level they have become accustomed to.” 

But acknowledging that you will likely change after welcoming a new baby and embracing how that new challenge will add to your toolkit and mindset when you return to work, she says. 

Staggering parental leave

Staggering paid family leave between parents is a popular option, but can present its own set of challenges, experts say. 

Meet the Expert

Sarah O’Leary

CEO of Willow Innovations, the company that invented the first wearable, in-bra breast pump in 2017. O’Leary is also a mother of two.

“Many underestimate how all-encompassing the early weeks are for new parents caring for a newborn,” said Sarah O’Leary, CEO of Willow. “Some parents might try to stagger their leave, allowing mom to take her parental leave first and a partner subsequently take leave. While this can be a great plan, it also leaves newly postpartum moms feeling overwhelmed and alone during the tough, earlier days.” 

Making a return-to-work plan

It’s also important for new moms to plan for their return to work. “[M]any moms plan for maternity leave, but might not have a clear plan for returning to work,” said O’Leary. “The stress of determining childcare coverage, how to continue breastfeeding and pumping during the workday, and the complex emotions of returning to work after leave can be just as challenging.” 

Additional Resources

We know that even when paid leave is available, it’s often confusing or hard to navigate. With some research, expectant parents can feel more empowered by educating themselves about their rights and options before the baby comes. Here are some additional resources:

Paid Family Leave Government Resources 

U.S. Department of Labor Paid Family and Medical Leave Fact Sheet 

U.S. Department of Labor: Paid Leave

Advocacy Resources for Paid Family Leave

MomsRising

A Better Balance

Chamber of Mothers

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