Organizational Wellness

Everything HR Reps Need to Know About Parental Leave Policies in the US

Apr 25, 2023
Last Updated May 16, 2024

Having a child is an incredible, life-changing, and exciting experience. But for parents in the U.S., this magical time can be marked with overwhelm and stress — America has one of the largest happiness gaps in the world between parents and non-parents.

Parents in the U.S. are 12% less happy, on average, than their childness peers, according to a study of OECD countries. This same study found that “more generous family policies, particularly paid time off and childcare subsidies, are associated with smaller disparities in happiness between parents and non-parents.”

This makes your company’s parental leave policy a powerful influence on the wellbeing of the parents working within your organization. As an HR representative, you are in a unique position to advocate for and provide stability to employees during a tumultuous time in their lives. Here’s what you need to know about parental leave — from what it entails to federal regulations and commonly asked questions — so you can give employees the best support possible. 


What Is Parental Leave?

Parental leave is a type of leave that enables your employees to take an extended period of time off work so they can care for their new child (and recover from giving birth, if applicable). 

There are several types of parental leave. Some companies offer maternity leave for mothers and paternity leave for fathers, while opters opt for a single parental leave policy that is not dependent on the sex of the parent. In recent years, organizations have begun to expand their policies to be available to parents following the adoption or fostering of a child, not only following birth. 

Parental Leave Policy in the U.S.

While there are no U.S. laws governing maternity or paternity leave, there is a federal family leave law that sets a minimum standard for parental leave for eligible employees: the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). FMLA allows full-time and part-time employees that meet specific criteria to take unpaid leave for certain health and family reasons, including welcoming a new child. An employee is eligible for parental leave if they have:

  • Worked for their employer for 12 months prior to FMLA starting.
  • Worked at least 1,250 hours with the employer during the 12 months before their leave starts. Based on a 40-hour work week, this comes out to an average of 31 weeks of work. 
  • Worked for an employer at a location with 50 or more employees in a 75-mile radius.
  • Part-time employees need to work approximately 24 hours per week to qualify.

Each state can also set its own parental leave laws that establish requirements above and beyond FMLA standards. While FMLA doesn’t require employers to pay employees for parental leave, for example, 11 states currently offer paid parental leave programs for their employees: 

  • California
  • Colorado
  • Connecticut
  • Delaware
  • Massachusetts
  • Maryland
  • New Jersey
  • New York
  • Oregon
  • Rhode Island
  • Washington State
  • Washington, D.C.

Since it’s not a mandated requirement for companies to offer paid parental leave, if a company does offer paid leave, they have to cover the employee’s salary themselves while the employee is out. 

Companies are welcome to offer enhanced parental leave policies for their employees that exceed regulatory minimums. Especially when these policies include paid time off, they can take a lot of stress off new parents who no longer have to choose between financial stability and bonding with their child. They have more time to settle into their new responsibilities, heal from labor, and spend time with their growing family. This level of support for new parents can help your company promote employee wellbeing and increase talent retention.

How Employers Can Support New Parents 

New parents often look to their employers for guidance on parental leave. They may need help understanding their rights, which benefits they’ll have, and transitioning back to the office when parental leave is over.  

Before Parental Leave

For FMLA, employees have to submit several applications and forms to determine their eligibility to take leave. Leading up to an employees’ parental leave, you can help new parents get ready by assisting with the FMLA paperwork, so they don’t have to worry about handling it after they’ve welcomed a new child. 

During Parental Leave

While an employee is out on leave, they’ll probably have questions about health insurance and other leave benefits. Keep a clear line of communication between HR and employees so they know who to contact to get their questions answered.

After Parental Leave

Once an employee is back from parental leave, you can help them transition back into their tasks. If possible, you can allow them to ramp back up to their full workload over a period of time, so they don’t feel overwhelmed when they return. 

Parental Leave FAQs

Given that parental leave varies from state-to-state and even company-to-company, it’s natural to have questions about the basics of how parental leave works. Brushing up on the basics is a great way to make sure you are able to empower your team members during their transition.

How Long is Parental Leave?

Eligible employees are entitled to 12 unpaid weeks of job-protected parental leave during a 12-month period to care for a new child. The leave can be taken either consecutively or intermittently at the employee’s discretion.

When Can an Employee Take Parental Leave?

Employees are entitled to take parental leave when they welcome a new child. This includes parents who have welcomed a new child through adoption and foster care, as well.

Is Parental Leave Available to Both Parents?

Yes, under FMLA, eligible employees are entitled to 12 weeks of job-protected maternity leave and/or paternity leave. This policy allows either or both parents to care for a newborn or newly fostered or adopted child. For both parents to be able to take leave, both must meet the eligibility requirements outlined in the FMLA guidelines.

Families can also choose whether to have each parent take their parental leave at the same time or separately, depending on what works best for them.

Is an Employees’ Job Guaranteed When They Take Parental Leave?

Yes, FMLA protects jobs for those who take parental leave. Taking parental leave under FMLA guarantees their position as an employee during and after their period of absence.

Employers are also required to provide employees on parental leave with health care benefits that are equivalent to what they had prior to taking the time off.

Are There Any Exceptions To the 12-week Parental Leave Period?

FMLA does not provide any exceptions to the 12-week parental leave program. It is at the discretion of each employer whether to provide exceptions to the 12-week period of parental leave.

Parental Leave Supports Employee Wellbeing

As an HR professional, you’re in an excellent position to support your employees while they take parental leave. You can help your employees in a number of ways — from the policies you offer them to the programs that promote their overall wellbeing. 

When you’re creating or updating your wellness programs, take new parents into consideration. For example, you could create some resources or tips that are tailored to employees who have recently welcomed a new child. Creating this type of family-friendly workplace helps you set your employees up for success and makes them feel supported.

Wellhub can help you support new parents and all your employees with wellness initiatives. Talk with one of our Wellbeing Specialists to learn more!

Company healthcare costs drop by up to 35% with Wellhub! (* Based on proprietary research comparing healthcare costs of active Wellhub users to non-users.) Talk to a Wellbeing Specialist to see how we can help reduce your healthcare spending!



Wellhub Editorial Team

The Wellhub Editorial Team empowers HR leaders to support worker wellbeing. Our original research, trend analyses, and helpful how-tos provide the tools they need to improve workforce wellness in today's fast-shifting professional landscape.


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