The United States lags behind European countries when it comes to maternity leave. Federal law only requires 12 weeks of unpaid leave if the mother qualifies. To qualify under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), you must:

  • Work for a company that has 50 or more employees in a 75 miles radius
  • Have worked for a minimum of 1250 hours in the past 12 months
  • Worked for at least 12 months for this company (although consecutive work isn't required)

If you meet all these criteria, then you qualify. But, the company isn't required to pay you for any of that time off, and neither does the government--but in 2004 California changed that and they looked at the impact of the payment.

California followed 153,000 women who gave birth right before and right after they implemented the paid maternity leave. Women who got paid leave earned an average of $24,000 less over ten years than the women who had unpaid leave.

First time moms were 5 to 7 percent less likely to be employed at all compared to the women who didn't get paid leave, and for those who were employed, they were earning 5 to 8 percent less than their unpaid leave counterparts.

Let me repeat this: Women who got unpaid leave were better off financially, ten years later than women who got paid leave.

The New York Times writes:

These patterns held no matter the age or prior earnings of the mother, and were true for both unmarried and married mothers, though the decreases in employment were slightly larger for unmarried women, found the paper, which was partly financed by the National Science Foundation.

While this study was large, the results were not similar to other studies that looked at the effects of maternity leave. They note that not all women who gave birth took the paid leave, so it's possible that those who took it would have scaled back on work after giving birth anyway. The strongest preference for women with children under 18 is part-time work anyway, and awareness of the program was low

Does this mean you shouldn't offer paid time off for maternity and paternity leave? (This study didn't look at men who took the leave.) First, these results are counter to previous studies, and second, a government program is different than a company-provided one. Third, having mom return to work isn't the only goal of a paid leave--bonding time with the baby is also important. There aren't clear answers as to the most effective way to support women after giving birth. Keep your eyes open and track your own statistics, but government-sponsored leave may not lead to more financially secure mothers.