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Parental Leave: How Does It Work Under FMLA?

Becoming a new parent is a major life milestone, but it can raise some tricky questions in the workplace. For example, are all new parents entitled to parental leave when they adopt or give birth to a child? And, if so, is it paid or unpaid leave? How long can an employee take a leave of absence without losing their job or health insurance?

The answers to these questions will depend on the state you live and work in, how long you’ve held the position, and whether your company’s parental leave policy goes above and beyond the entitlements outlined in the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).

Whether you’re a new parent or an employer trying to streamline your leave of absence and return-to-work policies, here’s everything you need to know about parental leave eligibility and benefits under FMLA.

What Is Parental Leave?

Parental leave is a workplace policy which allows eligible employees to take time off after the birth or adoption of a new child before returning to the same position.

Parental leave policies vary around the world, but their purpose is the same: to allow a parent to care for a child without having to worry about losing or quitting their job.

In the U.S., parental leave entitlement is mandated under federal law — specifically, the Family and Medical Leave Act — but individual states may have policies that cover additional situations or provide more benefits. Furthermore, some companies may offer more generous policies for parental leave than what is required under state and federal law in order to attract talent.

If you aren’t sure about the leave benefits your company provides, check with your human resources (HR) department to find out more.

How Long Does Parental Leave Last?

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, eligible employees are guaranteed up to 12 weeks of unpaid parental leave in any 12-month period following an adoption, birth, or the placement of a child into foster care.

Parental leave doesn’t have to begin immediately after the birth or adoption of a child, but it must end within 12 months. For example, if multiple parents are eligible for parental leave, one of them may choose to delay their leave so the periods don’t overlap, but both periods of leave must be concluded within the first year of the child’s adoption or birth.

Under federal leave law, parental leave can only be taken intermittently if the employer approves. The exception is if the child has a “serious health condition,” in which case some of the restrictions on the length and timing of parental leave do not apply.

Employees are required to provide 30 days of notice before taking leave, except in the case of an emergency or other unforeseen circumstances.

Who Qualifies for Parental Leave?

Parental leave: mom spending time with her baby

FMLA covers many types of leave, including personal leave for medical or mental health conditions as well as caring for a seriously ill adult child.

Under FMLA, parental leave isn’t gender-specific. Any parent can take up to 12 weeks of leave, but there are a few eligibility differences between maternity leave and paternity leave. For example, mothers can begin leave before giving birth in order to receive prenatal care, while fathers can request leave in order to “care for [a] spouse who is incapacitated due to pregnancy or child birth.”

Both full-time and part-time employees are eligible for parental leave, but there are a few other eligibility requirements to consider:

  • You must have worked for at least 12 months with the same employer (not necessarily consecutively; i.e., seasonal workers)
  • You must have worked at least 1,250 hours within the past year
  • Your employer must be a “covered employer” with at least 50 employees working in the surrounding 75 miles

This means that independent contractors and employees of small businesses are not automatically covered, although seasonal workers may still be eligible.

Even if a business doesn’t meet the FMLA threshold, it must still comply with the Pregnancy Discrimination Act if it has more than 15 employees.

Is Parental Leave Paid or Unpaid?

The Family and Medical Leave Act doesn’t require employers to pay for parental leave, so whether or not your leave is paid or unpaid will depend on your company’s parental leave policy and the laws in your state.

For example, California has a Paid Family Leave program that covers 60-70% of your paycheck for up to six weeks. Because this program is administered by the state and not your employer, you’ll need to apply separately from your FMLA leave request.

California also has a New Parents Leave Act that extends unpaid parental leave to employees of businesses with 20 to 49 employees.

In some industries, parental leave is a standard employee benefit. Google offers its employees up to 24 weeks of paid parental leave, while Microsoft, Salesforce, and Adobe offer similar periods of time off for birth parents and their spouses.

If your company’s employment policies don’t include paid leave, you may be able to draw pay from sick leave or vacation days while taking unpaid parental leave.

How Does Reinstatement Work?

Colleagues saying goodbye to an employee leaving for his parental leave

One of the key benefits of taking parental leave is that you’re guaranteed the same job or an equivalent role when you return to work. If the role in question has changed while you were away, you can be placed in a new position as long as it isn’t materially different from your previous role.

Your new position must offer the same pay and employee benefits, and it must take place on a similar schedule at a similar location.

This means you could be moved to a new department or asked to come in on a slightly different shift, but you can’t be moved to a new city or asked to work an overnight shift if you previously worked during the daytime.

Job protection and reinstatement is one of the core benefits of parental leave. You can download a free guide from to learn more about your rights under FMLA.

What Are Other Types of Parental Leave?

Adoption, birth, and foster care aren’t the only situations in which an employee might be eligible to take a leave of absence to provide child care.

Parents can also take FMLA leave to care for a child over 18 years of age who has a serious physical or mental health condition or a disability that falls under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). In some cases, a sibling or another caregiver might qualify for leave if they are acting in place of a parent.

Additionally, eligible employees can take up to 26 months of leave to act as a caregiver for a family member (spouse, parent, or child) who is a covered active duty member of the military and has a major illness or injury.

Streamline Parental Leave

Father spending time with his child

Navigating parental leave can be challenging for employees and HR departments alike. With multiple forms to fill out and high stakes if anything goes wrong, it benefits both parties to get it right. Having a streamlined leave of absence and return-to-work solution ensures that new parents get the time off that they're entitled to, and that employers comply with all of the laws and regulations in their state.

With Pulpstream, you can automate the FMLA and state leave process, reducing the amount of time it takes to manage each request. You can use a rule engine to easily determine eligibility and self-service tools to simplify the return-to-work process.

Our customizable, no-code platform makes it easy to set up automated workflows without having to touch a line of code.

Contact us today to request a demo and learn more.