Maternity Rights for Working Mothers in the United States

pregnant mom in the office

My first two babies were born in June. We were fortunate that things worked in our favor this way because, as a teacher, the summer was an ideal time for me to have a baby. Interrupting the school year with a substitute would have been disruptive for my students and additional work for me as I phased in and out of the classroom, but it also would have been more expensive. 

Maternity leave

In the United States, unfortunately, there is no nationally standardized paid leave guaranteed to workers while having a baby. The Family and Medical Leave Act, or FMLA (since 1993), applies to companies with fifty or more employees and guarantees workers up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave per year. This applies to both the person giving birth and the non-birthing parent. To qualify, the employee must have worked at their company for a minimum of one year. Your leave time can be used all at once or at any time during your baby's first year. 

Some states have paid mandates for new parents utilizing family medical leave, but these stipulations and benefits vary from state to state. To take full advantage of your state's benefits, research your rights. You may consider speaking with human resources or a coworker who has recently given birth and may be personally familiar with what these rights look like, so you can be prepared to utilize them to the best of your ability. 

Many argue that by requiring paid maternity leave, employers will have increased costs and be forced to reduce overall employment. Others disagree, saying that the lack of support for pregnant women and their families will discourage quality workers who would add invaluable workplace contributions. A large number of countries with similar development and wealth have significantly more support for pregnant workers before, during, and after the birth of their children. 

In 2021 there was a proposal for paid family and medical leave benefits that would guarantee workers in the United States up to twelve weeks of paid leave to care for family members, including newborn babies. If passed, this could be a game-changer for families in the American workforce. 

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Working while pregnant

While both spheres of parenthood (working parents and stay-at-home parents) offer unique challenges and benefits, those who choose to work out of the home through pregnancy in the United States may be baffled to find the stark lack of support legally required in our country. Many countries offer paid time off after the birth of a new baby; however, the United States currently requires only a very basic list of rights for working parents. Some workplaces may choose to go above and beyond those requirements, and a select number of states have generated their own requirements, but as a nation overall, the system needs to be built in favor of expecting parents. 

Technically deemed a "medical condition," those who are pregnant and working in the United States must be allowed the same rights as anyone else experiencing a similar medical condition, according to The Pregnancy Discrimination Act (since 1978). If you have questions about what is/is not legal behavior on behalf of employers during your pregnancy, you can also refer to the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Two laws enforced by the EEOC include Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits "sex discrimination, including pregnancy discrimination."

Pregnancy discrimination includes any discrimination based on the following: 

  • Current pregnancy
  • Past pregnancy
  • Potential pregnancy
  • Medical condition(s) related to pregnancy or childbirth, such as breastfeeding/lactation.
  • Having or choosing not to have an abortion.
  • Birth control/contraception. 


The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits "discrimination against an applicant or employee based on a disability, including a disability related to a pregnancy such as diabetes that develops during pregnancy." 

Additionally, the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and the Federal Break Time for Nursing Mothers Law provide protections for employees who need to express breast milk at work. 

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In summary, in relation to maternity rights in the United States:

Your employer cannot:

  • Refuse to hire or promote you based on any aspect related to pregnancy.
  • Deny training, benefits, pay, job assignments, or promotions due to pregnancy or pregnancy-related conditions. 
  • Fire you or reduce hours as a direct result of your pregnancy.
  • Force you to take maternity leave.
  • Harass or bully you in any way, including concerning your pregnancy.
  • Retaliate against you for your legally awarded breaks and accommodations. 

Your employer must: 

  • Keep all medical records and information, including those that are pregnancy-related, confidential and in separate medical files.
  • Grant the same benefits as any other employee with a medical condition.
  • Provide lighter and/or alternative work assignments as necessary. 
  • Allow you to work as long as you are able. 
  • Continue to provide seniority and eligibility for pay increases or benefits, even during disability leave.
  • Reasonable break time and a place, other than a bathroom, that is shielded from view to express breast milk while at work for up to one year after your child's birth. (You must be completely relieved from duty or paid as any other break would be paid during this time.) 

I was in the midst of my third pregnancy (my first baby that was not due over the summer) when I left the classroom and began working from home. Looking back, there are many rights I was unaware of during my time working a traditional job, which left me spending months hiding in supply closets to pump during lunch break or smiling uncomfortably at inappropriate jokes that had no place in the workplace. You are your best advocate, so take the time to become well-versed on what you can expect from your employer while you are expecting! Hopefully, these rights will be expanded soon, and working parents will be able to spend less time advocating and more time working and preparing for their growing families. 

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