How U.S. Maternity Leave Stacks Up Against the World

You'd get more time with baby if you lived almost anywhere else!

maternity leave Shannon Greer

For such a world leader, the United States is surprisingly far, far behind when it comes to providing maternity leave. In fact, it's only one of three nations in the whole world that doesn't mandate paid maternity leave benefits (the others are Papua New Guinea and Swaziland). Paid leaves in other countries vary from the highest: what averages out to about 82 percent of pay for sixteen months (well over a year!) in Sweden and 100 percent of pay for a full year in Slovenia; to the low end of 50 percent pay for 12 weeks in Niger, or 30 days at 67 percent pay in Tunisia. Still, the lowest of the low is a whole lot more than we've got going on here.

The average new mom in America is given just three months of leave (unpaid!) and only if she works for a large enough company. The passage of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) in 1993 entitles many female workers up to 12 weeks of job-protected medical leave for birth or adoption, but this is without pay. In general, coverage for maternity leave varies state by state and can also depend on how large your company is (FMLA only applies to companies with more than 50 employees within a 75-mile radius), how long you've worked there, and how many hours you've worked in the past year (most policies require you to have worked at least 12 months and 1,250 hours).

Some women in the U.S. are fortunate enough to get six weeks paid maternity leave, while others can cull their unused sick and vacation days, and in some states you can take temporary disability leave.

White-collar jobs in the U.S. are the most likely to give any paid leave, and as Lee E. Miller, managing director of advanced human resources LLC and co-author of A Woman's Guide to Successful Negotiating, explains that's because those companies realize that offering maternity leave will attract a certain talent pool that they don't want to miss out on. Miller predicts that as the economy increases, so will companies' employee benefits, including paid maternity leave.

The frontrunners in maternity leave have been tech companies, such as Yahoo! and Facebook, both of which offer what they call "baby cash" ($500 and $4k, respectively) to employees with newborns to cover infant-related essentials.

So why is the U.S. so far behind? "The States still believe that maternity leave is a job killer and a profit drain," says Ivana Pignatelli, author of A Simple Guide to Pregnancy & Baby's First Year and a blogger for "However, research is showing the opposite to be true: Companies that provide family-friendly policies have less turnover, higher shareholder return, and greater profitability, not to mention better health for mothers and children. It's important for women to use our growing clout to push for changes in maternity leave policies and workplace protections for families."

Blogger and mom of two, Amber Strocel, agrees. "There's actually research that shows a correlation between short maternity leaves and reduced breastfeeding rates, increased risk of postpartum depression, and higher infant mortality rates. There is also some evidence to suggest that longer paid maternity leaves improve employee retention. When you're worried about your baby, not getting enough sleep, and struggling with adjusting to parenthood, your job performance suffers. By giving women the time they need after having a baby, you're ensuring that when a new mother does return to work, she's able to give her full attention to her job, which benefits her employer."

So why doesn't the U.S. get with the program already? Paid maternity leaves are good for everyone.

Copyright © 2013 Meredith Corporation.