What's The Difference?

There are so many decisions to make when starting a family. If you’re employed, learning about your work’s maternity leave policy and finding out if they are covered by the Federal Family Medical Leave Act provisions is the first step toward knowing what your benefits are.

Mom with newborn

One of the most important things to research when you are preparing to start a family is your company’s maternity leave policy. As soon as you are comfortable sharing news of your pregnancy or impending adoption with your employer, you should schedule a meeting with the Human Resources (HR) director. She will be able to answer your questions about the specifics of your employer's maternity leave policy, such as the amount of paid or unpaid leave you are entitled to take, the length of time you can be away from your job and how to apply for benefits.

There are generally two types of leave for new parents to consider — maternity leave and leave that falls under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA).

Maternity leave

Schedule a meeting with your HR department to learn about maternity leave at your company.

Maternity leave — also called parental or family leave — is the time a mother (or father) takes off from work for the birth or adoption of a child. Paid maternity leave is still the exception in the United States although it is the norm in many other countries. Schedule an appointment with the HR department to find out what your company’s policies are. In most cases your company will require you to use a combination of sick leave, personal days, vacation days, short-term disability (STD), and unpaid family leave for your time away from work. It's important to research your employer’s specific guidelines and calculate your available sick, personal and vacation days to get an idea of how much paid leave you are likely to have "in the bank." Keep in mind that you will most likely need some of your sick or personal days during your pregnancy for prenatal checkups.

This meeting is also a good time to ask how much unpaid time the company will let you take while holding your job for your return. Don't assume that the answers are cast in stone. Company policies can change so check in periodically to confirm that the information you received in your initial meeting is still valid when you're ready to go on leave. It is very important to stay on top of issues related to your maternity leave in order to keep from losing benefits — or your job.

Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA)

In 1993 the federal government passed the Family Medical Leave act which mandates unpaid job-protected leave for up to 12 weeks a year. The FMLA only applies to employers with 50 or more employees, except for government agencies and elementary and secondary schools, which are covered regardless of number of employees. There are also requirements that must be met by the employee in order to be covered by the FMLA. You must also have worked for the employer for a minimum of 12 months — not necessarily consecutively — and have worked at least 1,250 hours within the last 12 months to be eligible. Lastly, your employer must have more than 50 employees who work within 75 miles of your worksite in order to be covered by the FMLA.

Leave that falls under the FMLA can be taken for the birth and/or bonding period with a newborn, the placement of an adoptive child in your home or placement of a foster child. A total of 12 weeks can be taken in a 12-month period, but needs to be taken as a continuous block of leave. Some states have passed their own FMLAs that have lower thresholds for employer coverage. You will need to research your home state to see if that is the case.


Maternity leave will likely offer you a combination of paid and unpaid leave. All leave mandated by FMLA is unpaid.

How to negotiate maternity leave

As soon as you are comfortable sharing your pregnancy or impending adoption with your employer, you should begin the process of negotiating your maternity leave. By taking the lead, you not only put yourself in a better bargaining position, but also show that you are a dedicated employee who wants to cover all bases. Be reasonable with what you expect, but consider offering options to help with transitions. Will you be able to help train your temporary replacement? Are you available for conference calls during your leave? What steps can you take to ease the transition for your employer? Think about these situations before you begin negotiating.

By planning ahead for your maternity leave, you can ensure that the benefits you receive are the maximum you are entitled to, and gain the most time for you and your family to bond.

More ways to prepare for Baby

Going back to work after maternity leave
Benefits of longer maternity leaves
Prep your body for pregnancy

Tags: maternity leave

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Comments on "Maternity leave vs. FMLA leave"

Myra August 01, 2013 | 3:40 PM

Please note the difference between "Maternity Leave" and "FMLA". Maternity Leave is just leave from work for the birth or adoption of child. This leave is NOT job protected--meaning your employer could terminate your position while you're away on leave. Most likely, you will have to use up all your PTO hours (or vacation/sick hours) before taking the remainder of your leave unpaid. It may not sound fair, but you have to realize, companies DO NOT have to offer paid vacation/sick hours...hence, why it's called a BENEFIT. FMLA, on the other hand, allows you to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave (though most companies require that you use up all your PTO or vacation/sick hours first), and those 12 weeks are job-protected -- meaning they can't terminate you during those 12 weeks. In fact, even after you return to work, it would behoove companies to not "touch" (terminate) you for fear of being sued for retaliation for taking FMLA.

Kate March 09, 2013 | 12:21 AM

I want to take FMLA, without having to use up ALL of my sick and vacation time. It seems silly to waste that if I can afford to take unpaid leave. I will need the sick time and vacation time (for an actual vacation) once we get over this experience. However, my employers policy is that we must use sick and vacationtime, completely. This seems irresponsible in my opinion. Once you return to work and become sick, you now have an empty sick bank??? How can I get my employer to just let me go straight to UNPAID FMLA? I did come across a lawsuit filed for this exact reason, but now that I need to reference it I cant find it anywhere! Please help.

concerned January 07, 2013 | 2:47 PM

I just experienced a miscarriage and had an induced labor i wont be able to return to work until after my 6 week checkup. My husband and I would like to become pregnant again. My question is when does the 12 months count again? I will be on FMLA, when will I be able to be eligible for the 12 weeks again? Are the 12 months counted from the day the FMLA kicks in or the day I return to work from this leave?

clint roach January 04, 2013 | 7:10 AM

I called hr...they said could take my pto days...they said I could take off but would be unpaid...they told me to look into flma....I have not been at this job for a year..so I do not have vacation time...what do I need to do..????I can not afford to take off and not get paid.

Amy September 21, 2012 | 1:02 PM

This was a great article. It seems like Maternity Leave is better than FMLA since you can get paid. Definitely look into what your employer specifically does, though, like Erin suggests.

Erin June 01, 2012 | 6:56 AM

Plan in advance. My employer gives 12 weeks off unpaid, but they will pay you for sick/vacation days. I know most mom's (and dad's) want the full 12 weeks off, so plan in advance and try to save as much as possible leading up to the birth. Being pregnant for 9 months allows for plenty of time to save so you and your spouse can relax and enjoy being with your new baby!

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