Paid Parental Leave: A Guide to Trends and Policies in the US and Globally

Paid parental leave policies are continually evolving in the US and internationally. Read our guide to learn about trends and policies in parental leave for employees in the US and beyond.

Curly mother and child crouched in the middle of a cobbled street

Caitlin MacDougall

Published on October 7, 2021

A lot has changed in recent decades when it comes to parental leave around the world. A generation ago, it would have been common for only mothers to receive paid leave when they gave birth. And before The Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978, US employers could legally ask women confidential (and frankly offensive) questions about their reproductive health, including whether they were pregnant, planned to become pregnant, or if they were still in their "child bearing years." Some employers would be so brazen as to ask a female employee if they had had an abortion, or a medical condition related to their pregnancy.Times have changed, thankfully. Not only do women in many countries have national laws that protect confidential information related to their reproductive health, but parental leave policies have also become more inclusive to provide paid leave for all families--new fathers as well as new mothers.Visible examples in the media of a diverse range of family makeups have opened our minds about what it means to be a parent as well. More notably, equal rights initiatives for LGBTQ+ families across the globe have changed family medical leave policies. 28 countries now legally recognize queer families and same sex couples, which has also forced companies in those same countries to legally recognize adoption rights for these families, and to provide the support for different family structures, and not just new mothers.How do employers ensure that new parents are given the leave period they need to care for and connect with their new child, from pregnancy to due date, birth or adoption? In this article, we will analyze trends in paid parental leave as well as the basics of family and medical leave.

Maternity and paternity leave and Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) requirements 🤱

Many companies refer to maternity leave and paternity leave generally as parental leave, or family leave. However, about half of the countries in the world allocate paid leave for either mothers or fathers, but not both. Because some companies still differentiate their leave policies into maternity leave and paternity leave, we will first outline common practices for both maternity and paternity leave policies.

Unpaid maternity leave is mandatory, but paid maternity leave isn't

The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (FMLA) in the US requires 12 weeks of unpaid maternity leave annually for birth, adoption, or foster care placement. Such rights are mandatory for companies in the United States with 50 or more employees. Currently, paid leave is not required by law.Leave under the FMLA ensures that any parents taking leave to care for a new baby is able to return to their same job after taking leave. And if they do not return to the same job, they should be able to return to a new job that is equivalent to the job they had before, with the same salary and benefits.An employee may pursue legal action against an employer for pregnancy discrimination, or for not providing the minimum time period for parental leave. It is illegal for an employer to retaliate against an employee if they participate in an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission lawsuit, or any investigation or hearing related to parental leave or pregnancy discrimination. Furthermore, employers may not retaliate if they discover an employee has sought legal advice  for a potential discrimination case.The power to extend family and medical leave accommodations is relegated to state law, which in some states requires that FMLA leave is supplemented by annual leave, or flexible or extended paid sick leave. Many states in the US have also extended the FMLA leave rights to companies with fewer than 50 employees. States like California, New Jersey, Rhode Island and New York now require employers to provide paid parental leave as well.Let's examine the maternity leave practices in one of those states, the state of California. Under state law in California, an employee may have paid or unpaid leave options, or both, depending on the company for which they work. Like the rest of the country, employers in California are required to provide at least 12 weeks of unpaid leave, but often the unpaid leave is supplemented by compensation such as accrued paid time off, annual leave, sick time, and disability insurance.Pregnant women in California can receive up to four weeks of Disability Insurance (DI) benefits for a normal pregnancy before the due date.  If she has undergone a normal delivery, a new mother can also receive up to six weeks of pregnancy disability leave benefits. If a mother gives birth by a Cesarean section, she will have eight weeks of pregnancy disability leave for recovery. The Pregnancy Disability Act in California also serves as protection for pregnant women who are physically limited by birth or pregnancy: it requires that employers treat pregnant women who work for them the same as non-pregnant employees who are temporarily disabled for other reasons. For example, if the employer accommodates a worker with temporary disabilities--perhaps someone who can only manage light physical activity at their job--a mother who is temporarily disabled by a pregnancy or the birth of a child must also be afforded that same level of accommodation under state law.

Advanced maternity leave policies have a big impact on society 📈

Despite some advances in parental leave generally, offering only the minimum amount of unpaid family and medical leave can disproportionately affect underrepresented groups, such as women of color and low-income communities. Taking a longer maternity leave has been linked to lower infant mortality rates and longer, healthier lives for mothers in middle age. In a 2012 Rutgers study, longer maternity leave was linked to better economic incomes: women were 39% less likely to receive public assistance and 40% less likely to need food stamps in the year following their pregnancy.

Maternity leave is more substantial in many other countries 💶

The Family and Medical Leave Act mandates 12 weeks of maternity leave in the US, but those 12 weeks are still 4 weeks shy of the World Health Organization's recommended time period for maternity leave. Many countries outside of the US offer longer maternity leave, as well as full-salaried maternity leave. Some of the countries that require the longest periods of available paid leave for mothers are Bulgaria (58.6 weeks), Greece (43 weeks), and the UK (39 weeks).Several countries also require that employers provide paid parental leave in the weeks before a mother's due date, and after the new child is born. The countries that provide fully paid family leave are Germany, Poland, Spain, Portugal, Mexico, Costa Rica, and Chile, to name just a few. Estonia happens to be a country that not only provides paid maternity leave, but also has one of the longest minimum periods of maternity leave (20 weeks).

Paid paternity leave 👨‍👦

1 in 5 parents in the US are stay-at-home mothers and fathers, a statistic which hasn't been true since 1989, with one difference: the number of fathers who stay at home to care for their children has risen slightly from 4% to 7%, which would suggest a shift in conventional gender roles. Millennials in particular appear more open to this arrangement.Unlike in 1989, you will find that a significant number of companies in the US provide paid paternity leave, about 40%. In the private sector, however, only 13% of companies provide paternity leave to fathers, paid or unpaid, and only 7 to 8% of fathers in the service industry receive the same benefits.Worldwide, 38% of countries provide paid parental leave for fathers that is above the statutory minimum.

Most companies don't provide paternity leave, paid or unpaid

Paid paternity leave has an impact on mothers' advancement in the workforce, and in some cases, the lack of paternity leave can drive mothers out of the workforce in order to care for their children. So why don't all companies opt in to provide parental leave for fathers?For one thing, many countries where companies reside do not require employers to provide leave for fathers, and there is typically no national legislation that mandates paternity leave. Additionally, not all new fathers are choosing to take paternity leave. A New York Times article in 2020 reported that in the United States, 90% of fathers take paternity leave, but at the same time, the majority of them only take about 10 days of leave. Even though fathers may have available paid leave, some of them take a shortened leave because they worry they will be judged by their employers and miss out on work opportunities. Many new fathers, however, opt out of taking leave because it's not fully paid.

There are no laws in the US that require job-protected leave or paid leave for new fathers, but 4 to 6 weeks is the most common time period of paid leave

While this parental leave period is the norm in the US, usually these terms are only offered to mothers, and most companies don't provide paid time off or unpaid time off to new fathers for birth or adoption, or in the case of foster care placement.

Paternity leave in the tech industry is more substantial 🤑

For tech companies, the paid family leave policies vary, but many provide paternal leave, and the amount of leave tends to be longer than for other companies in the US. Major tech firms, in fact, have started offering between 6 to 17 weeks of maternity leave and paternity leave. In 2013, Yahoo announced they would provide 8 weeks of paid paternity leave and 16 weeks of paid maternity leave for employees that meet eligibility requirements. They also gift $500 to new parents after giving birth.Facebook has one of the best maternity leave policies, offering four months of paid leave and $4,000 in cash and subsidized daycare for eligible employees. Netflix provides a full year of paid leave for both maternity and paternity leave, which certainly sets a standard for other tech companies offering progressive family and medical leave policies.Microsoft offers a generous five months paid leave to new birth mothers, and three months for fathers, adoptive parents, and foster parents. Furthermore, the major tech company has changed their eligibility requirements in partnering with vendors and suppliers: only suppliers that offer 12 weeks minimum of parental leave for birth parents or adoptive parents are eligible to work with the tech company.

Paternity leave benefits are better in many other countries, but not by much

Once again, the US falls short of common paid parental leave policies in other countries. Many countries, as we learned earlier, are required to provide paid maternity leave, but there are fewer ones that require paid family leave for fathers as well. Out of 41 of the richest countries in the world, 26 provide paternity leave, according to a report from UNICEF. 16 of those countries offer paid paternity leave, in fact, although the time period of paid leave is shorter than that of mothers. The average amount of paid leave for new fathers who are offered it is 8.1 weeks, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), a company with representatives from over 37 countries who discuss and develop economic policy in the EU.We mentioned earlier that few fathers in the US take a full paternity leave, even if they are offered it. This trend is evident in other countries too, like Japan. Although Japan offers a whopping 30 weeks of paternity leave, only about 5% of the fathers who qualify end up taking the leave, due to staff shortages or certain companies not offering it, or simply because fathers in Japan may feel discouraged from taking it. South Korea is similar in this way, as 15 weeks of paternity leave is offered but not many fathers accept it.Spain has quickly become one of the most progressive countries when it comes to paid family leave for fathers. The country has increased its paternity leave from 12 weeks in 2020 to 16 weeks in 2021, which is the same amount of family leave offered to mothers. Fathers are given this job-protected leave at 100% of their salary rate. In the case of birth or adoption for same-sex couples, new parents choose which parent will take paternity leave and which will take maternity leave. If a father doesn't use his paternity leave, he cannot roll his leave over into his partner's maternity leave. And good news for companies in Spain: social security pays for the employee's parental leave subsidy.While there may be similar through-lines among fathers across the globe in terms of the pressure they feel to opt out of paternity leave, the US still falls short of many countries' paternity leave policies.

Paid family leave for Federal workers 👮‍♀️

Last year, an amendment was made to the Family and Medical Leave Act: The Federal Employee Paid Leave Act (FEPLA). This amendment makes paid parental leave available to certain categories of Federal workers with a new child. With this amendment, these employees are eligible to receive up to 12 weeks of paid, job-protected leave to take care of a newborn or adopted child that was born on or after October 1, 2020.The leave is limited to 12 weeks and must be used within a 12-month period, starting on the day a birth or placement is involved, and it's available as long as an employee has a continuing parental role with the new child.

Navigating family leave policies as an employer

Depending on where an employer hires their employee, they will need to navigate the different laws and best practices of family and medical leave in their employee's location. It's important to make women (or any child-bearing employee) feel cared for and supported during pregnancy and after; additionally, companies who take care of mothers must also support their partners. It's an equity issue that, when properly addressed and maintained, would be a boon to any company that wants to set the bar for family leave best practices, and nurture their talent in the process.

Legal Disclaimer:

The information contained in this site is provided for informational purposes only, and should not be construed as legal advice on any subject matter.

How Pilot can help

It's nearly impossible to keep track of all the different laws and policies regarding job-protected parental leave in other countries; it can be challenging to keep track of just those in the United States. Pilot specializes in providing payroll, benefits, and compliance to US-based companies hiring abroad, and our team can help ensure that your company stays compliant with local laws as they relate to benefits like family leave for your international team members. And we're not just experts on benefits: we also help you stay compliant with tax and payroll laws around the world.

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