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    Parental Leave 101: The Basics + What to Know

    5 mins

    Attracting and retaining talent is a critical part of any business’s success. And if you’re in HR, you know that a benefit like parental leave is essential for bringing in new employees. But what is parental leave like in the current job market? For today’s employees, it’s one of the sought-after benefits. 

    What Is Parental Leave?

    Parental leave is paid or unpaid time off work for new parents. This leave allows mothers to recover from the demanding process of childbirth without fear of losing their jobs. It also gives both parents time to bond with their children and get used to life with a new family member.

    Not only do biological parents qualify for parental leave, but this benefit is also extended to cover adoptive and foster parents. Adoptive and qualified foster parents can take time off work to help their child settle into their new home.

    Laws governing parental leave vary by state and currently exclude many types of employees. But as an employer, offering parental leave as a benefit can help your employees feel supported and make them more likely to stay with your company.

    How Long Does Parental Leave Last?

    Currently, the only nationally required parental leave is set by the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). Under the FMLA, public agencies and private companies with 50 or more employees must provide certain employees with medical leave. 

    That medical leave is unpaid and can last up to 12 weeks. Employees cannot lose their jobs as a result of taking FMLA leave. 

    It may be granted in the following situations:

    • Pregnancy complications

    • Birth and care of an employee’s child 

    • Placement of an adopted child or foster child with the employee

    • Care of an immediate family member with a serious health condition

    • Time off for a serious medical condition that impacts an employee’s ability to work

    Just as only certain employers must follow the terms of the FMLA, only certain employees qualify. Employees must meet the following eligibility criteria:

    • Have worked for the employer for at least a year

    • Have worked at least 1,250 hours over that year

    • Work at a location where the company employs at least 50 employees within a 75-mile radius

    The FMLA is just the minimum. Some states require — and many employers voluntarily offer — parental leave that is paid, longer than the usual 12 weeks, or both.

    Often, an employee on parental leave will take the full 12 weeks. However, if finances are a concern and their parental leave is unpaid, they may return to work sooner.

    A father holding his newborn baby
    miodrag ignjatovic via Getty Images

    How Does Parental Leave Differ by State?

    Employers in all 50 states must offer unpaid parental leave under the FMLA. Additionally, Washington, D.C., and the following states require or will soon require employers to provide paid parental leave:

    • California

    • Colorado (Beginning in 2024)

    • Connecticut

    • Delaware

    • Maryland

    • Massachusetts

    • New Jersey

    • New York

    • Oregon

    • Rhode Island

    • Washington state

    • Washington, DC

    It is expected that additional states will soon be offering their own programs as well.

    The terms of required parental leave vary widely by state, and not every type of employer is required to offer this leave.

    Hawaii offers some protection in the form of disability insurance for expectant mothers. Mothers who qualify can receive up to 58% of their average weekly wage for up to 26 weeks.

    Oregon has passed a law establishing paid parental leave insurance, which went into effect in September 2023. Similarly, Colorado will begin paying family medical leave insurance benefits in 2024.

    Currently, most states have no laws (other than the FMLA) that require parental leave:

    • Alabama

    • Alaska

    • Arizona

    • Arkansas

    • Florida

    • Georgia

    • Idaho

    • Illinois

    • Indiana

    • Iowa

    • Kansas

    • Kentucky

    • Louisiana

    • Maine

    • Michigan

    • Minnesota

    • Mississippi

    • Missouri

    • Montana

    • Nebraska

    • Nevada

    • New Hampshire

    • New Mexico

    • North Carolina

    • North Dakota

    • Ohio

    • Oklahoma

    • Pennsylvania

    • South Carolina

    • South Dakota

    • Tennessee

    • Texas

    • Utah

    • Vermont

    • Virginia

    • West Virginia

    • Wisconsin 

    • Wyoming

    If your company is in one of these states, you have an opportunity to stand out to potential employees. Many talented candidates will be more likely to choose your company over one that does not offer paid parental leave.

    What If An Employee Needs More Time Off?

    Once an employee’s 12 weeks of leave are up, their employer must reinstate them at the same job (or an equivalent one). Upon returning to work, the employer cannot fire or otherwise retaliate against the employee for taking FMLA leave.

    However, the FMLA only covers an employee for 12 weeks. If they do not return to work after 12 weeks — even if they cannot return due to health reasons — they can be fired.

    Depending on an employee’s location and other factors, they may be able to get additional job-protected leave. In some states and with some employers, parental leave policies allow for more than 12 weeks of leave. Some union agreements and employment contracts also offer more leave.

    If an employee has accumulated any paid time off, they may also use it to extend their parental leave.

    Should Your Company Offer Paid Parental Leave?

    Now you have a better idea of what parental leave means and how much, if any, your company is required to offer. But should you offer paid parental leave?

    Not every company has the budget to guarantee employees paid parental leave. But if yours does, you have a great opportunity to draw in some of your state’s top talent.

    Especially if you’re in a state with no paid parental leave mandates, even a small amount of paid leave makes a difference. For instance, offering a new parent a week of paid parental leave probably won’t put a huge dent in your company’s budget, but it will make a difference to the employee.

    Offering paid parental leave is a great way to help shape a positive company culture. When employees feel valued and supported by their employer, they’re happier. 

    That attitude will then reach throughout the whole work environment. And when employees feel appreciated by their company and come into a positive working environment each day, they won’t want to leave!

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    Ryan Hong
    Ryan Hong
    Senior Consultant, Team Lead at Bennie
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