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Maternity leave 101: the US vs Canada

There’s still this assumption floating around out there that the US ranks among the most advanced, progressive, and humane countries in the world—at least when it comes to women’s health and the rights of the family.

But think again. Fun fact: the US is one of just a handful of countries around the world (including Papua New Guinea, Swaziland, and Lesotho) that does not mandate any type of paid maternal leave. And, I mean, let’s just forget about paternal leave. 

In fact, when compared to Canada, the American approach to parental leave is seriously lacking, and frankly kind of shocking. While Canada’s system is far from perfect, it at least provides a partial income to new mothers for up to a year, and it also guarantees reemployment afterwards, which is no small thing when you have a growing family to feed. 

Parental leave in the US vs Canada: an overview 

While the US and Canada could both improve their approaches to parental leave, it’s worth comparing the two, because the difference is striking, and there are important lessons to be learned about crafting a woman-friendly (and family-friendly) policy for your company! 

In Canada 

In Canada, depending how long a person has been employed and their hours worked, new parents can take a leave of about 12 months and their employers are required to accept their return afterwards at the same rate of pay with the same benefits.

A soon-to-to-be mother can take up to 15 weeks of her leave before she gives birth if she chooses, and after the baby is born or adopted, either parent can take 35 weeks of parental leave, splitting the time as they please.

Eligible employees are typically paid about 55% of their average weekly insurable wage, up to a maximum of $562 per week. For low-income families, the rate of benefits can go up to 80%, with the same weekly maximum of $562.

It’s worth noting, though, that these benefits are taxable, which can be difficult for some families as they’re already dealing with a pay cut. Although not ideal, it’s still paid leave. 

In the United States 

As already touched upon, the US is the only country in the ‘developed’ world and the only country in this study of 41 nations that does not mandate any paid leave for new parents. In the last 50 years, the percentage of mothers who work either full or part time in the US has gone up from 51% to 72%, and today almost 50% of families with two parents include two parents who work fulltime

But in spite of all the extra care, work, and money required when a newborn comes into the world, the US only allows eligible workers 12 unpaid weeks off, and that’s only thanks to the Family and Medical Leave Act, signed in 1993.

Before then, the US had zero laws requiring any leave be provided at all. As a result of the very limited unpaid leave on offer, household income can drop by up to 42% around the time a woman gives birth, and unsurprisingly, single moms are most vulnerable to this economic insecurity.

If the new mom has pre-birth complications, she may be able to take part of her leave under the medical component. But, get this: there’s more. Employers with fewer than 50 employees are under no obligation to even offer the 12 unpaid weeks. There is serious work to be done. 

The basic takeaway when comparing Canada and the US: 12 partially paid months versus 12 unpaid weeks—for those eligible. 

Financial implications of the two systems 

In both Canada and the US, the company you work for can have massive financial implications for expecting parents. Although, thankfully, many employers in both countries provide paid maternity leave beyond what’s required by the government, the amount of pay and the length of leave both vary widely.  

Thanks to the 2002 Paid Family Leave Act, California is one of the few states that offers an official paid family leave to new parents. The benefit allows eligible employees to take up to 8 weeks off at 60-70% of their salary, up to a maximum of $1104 per week.

While significantly shorter than Canada’s average maternity leave, this is more than double $562, the weekly maximum benefit in Canada. But, while some US employers might offer 8 paid weeks, others will offer four paid months, and still others will merely offer the standard 12 unpaid weeks.

While most Canadians are far better off financially than their American counterparts when it comes to maternity leave, one new mom in Canada might get six months of leave at nearly 100% of her salary, while other moms receive nothing beyond the minimum federal standard.  

Bottom line: the financial implications of giving birth in Canada vs the US depend heavily on the priorities of individual employers. 

Our maternity leave role models 

Estonia offers more than 18 months of paid leave to new parents. Bulgaria, Hungary, Japan, Lithuania, Austria, Slovakia, Latvia, Norway and Slovenia all offer over a year. In Finland, new parents can split home/work until their child is in second grade. Turns out there’s an undeniable link beween happiness and top notch parental leave programs around the world. So take that to the bank.  

Thankfully, back in the good ol’ US of A, more family-friendly policies are slowly being introduced. Here’s some inspiration for your own parental leave policy! 

Parental leave

Having the support of a present partner is invaluable for both moms and babies, so it’s a good sign that more policies are allowing men to be involved in their kids’ lives. The international phone company Vodafone provides all its employees (American staff included) with a minimum of 16 weeks of parental leave on full salary, followed by 6 months of a protected 30-hour workweek. 

Flexible work arrangements

Flexible policies which work around a parent’s schedule include the option to work from home, job share, or work part-time. Take it from Lego: they allow full-time employees to work their hours anytime within a designated window, and they support part-time employees by offering them benefits at just twenty hours a week. 

Onsite childcare.  

You know, for that inevitable return to work. Top-notch onsite childcare is just one aspect of Patagonia’s “family-affirming policies.” They also allow parents to choose whether they want to drop their children at the daycare, or bring their kids into the office, as many do. Plus, they offer a travel support program for nursing mothers

A supportive company culture

Good ol’ Google offers various women-friendly perks such as breast cancer screening and reserved parking for pregnant employees whileGoldman Sachs cultivates a parent-friendly culture through maternity mentoring programs and seminars on wellness for new moms. GS has also gone one further and increased their stipends for adoption or egg retrieval up to $10,000 per event and $20,000 for an egg donation or surrogacy, to a lifetime maximum of $40,000 per employee. 

Professional mentorship

Women are four times less likely than men to ask for promotions due to lack of confidence—in a nutshell, because boys and girls are socialized differently. Some businesses are beginning to acknowledge this gendered gap and are now offering women mentorship and opportunities to develop skills. Companies with mentorship programs also benefit, which explains why 71% of Fortune 500 companies offer such programs. Mentorship is a great way to ensure the transfer of knowledge, higher employee retention, and a more diverse workforce, for starters.  

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Bottom line

The lack of maternity leave and benefits in the US is significant. And while Canada at least gives mothers the time to heal physically and families the time to adjust to their new normal, there is always room for improvement! 

It bears repeating: companies are free to go above and beyond government requirements and offer employees more parental leave and better family benefits. Like many other employer-paid benefits, paid parental leave is offered by top companies who understand the value of attracting and retaining qualified employees. As always, the human approach is a boon to your business! 

The PurelyHR Team

PurelyHR is powerful modular software for your everyday HR. We want to give you more time by providing industry-leading tools for essential tasks like time and attendance tracking, performance reviews, infraction tracking, and more. The PurelyHR blog is your resource for the latest in HR, workplace trends & culture, and product updates.