Not many employers provide paid maternity or paternity leave to the new parents in their workforce. No federal law requires you to offer paid time off to new parents.
Although a handful of states, such as California, give employees paid time off for the period they are physically unable to work due to pregnancy and childbirth, this time off is generally paid out of state temporary disability insurance programs (which are funded by withholdings from employees' paychecks), not out of an employer's own pocket.
Providing unpaid leave, however, is a different story.
The federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) requires larger employers to provide up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave per year to workers who need to care for a new child (either by birth or by adoption), to care for a seriously ill family member, or to recover from their own serious health condition, among other things. For more details about who is covered by the law, what leave the law requires, and notice and certification requirements, see Providing Family and Medical Leave.
FMLA leave can be used as pregnancy or parental leave in certain situations. Here are some of the rules that apply:
Some states require you to provide more than 12 weeks of leave, particularly if the leave is for "maternity disability" -- the legal term for the period of time when women are actually unable to work because of pregnancy and childbirth.
Your own employment policies may obligate you to provide paid leave to pregnant employees and new parents. Generally, if you make paid personal or medical leave available to other workers, you must make it available to pregnant employees and new parents. For example, if you provide paid leave to employees who are temporarily disabled (unable to work) for medical reasons, you must make this leave available to employees who are unable to work because of pregnancy.
Similarly, if you provide personal or vacation leave to your employees, you must allow new parents to use this time off as parental leave, as long as they meet the other requirements of your policy (for example, providing adequate notice or scheduling the leave with their supervisors).
For help drafting pregnancy or parental leave policies, including sample policies on CD-ROM, see Nolo's Create Your Own Employee Handbook: A Legal & Practical Guide, by Lisa Guerin & Amy DelPo.
Federal and state laws prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender, and this includes discrimination because of pregnancy. This means that you may not fire, demote, or take any other negative employment action against a worker because she is pregnant. Here are a few tips that will help you stay within the law when dealing with parental leave issues:
For an all-in-one resource to help you meet your company's legal obligations to the FMLA while helping employees balance work and family needs, get The Essential Guide to Family & Medical Leave, by Lisa Guerin and Deborah England (Nolo).