Nationwide movement calls for paid maternity leave for pregnant women

Paid leave for prenatal care is poised to become a national women’s health initiative, with New York leading the way as the first state to mandate a standalone entitlement to paid prenatal leave. In April, New York Governor Kathy Hochul signed an amendment to New York labor law that requires employers to provide up to 20 hours of paid leave in a 52-week period for pregnant employees to attend prenatal medical appointments and procedures, starting on Jan. 1, 2025.

Reshma Saujani, founder and chief executive of Moms First, a campaign of the nonprofit Girls Who Code, expressed hope that other states and governors will follow New York’s lead in prioritizing women’s health. The federal Family and Medical Leave Act provides job-protected leave for prenatal care, but it is unpaid, leaving many pregnant workers in a financial bind.

Washington D.C. has also enacted a similar law to New York’s, offering two weeks of paid leave for pregnancy-related medical care, as well as 12 weeks of paid leave after a baby is born. These laws are based on medical research showing that prenatal healthcare leads to better health outcomes for mothers and babies.

While the FMLA provides unpaid leave for eligible employees, there is no federal law requiring private employers to offer paid leave for family or medical needs, including prenatal care. Saujani noted that paid leave is not a partisan issue but has not been a legislative priority on the federal level.

Several states and one local jurisdiction have passed laws requiring private employers to provide paid family and medical leave, with some states also including provisions for prenatal care. As of January, 14 states, Washington D.C., and Puerto Rico have enacted paid family and medical leave programs.

New York embedded its new prenatal protections within its paid sick leave laws, joining 18 other states that have passed statewide paid sick leave laws. States more likely to follow New York’s lead in providing paid prenatal benefits are those with strong employee protections, such as California, Colorado, Massachusetts, and Washington.

With the passage of the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act at the federal level, which requires reasonable accommodations for pregnancy-related conditions, states may be more inclined to offer additional protections for pregnant workers. The focus on pregnant workers reflects a broader trend of states aiming to level the playing field for employee benefits.

While passing laws is essential, ensuring that workers are aware of their rights is crucial. Despite New York’s commendable paid family leave program, utilization remains low, with only 2% of eligible workers taking advantage of the benefits. Saujani emphasized the importance of educating workers about their eligibility for paid leave programs, citing Moms First’s website that uses AI to help people determine their eligibility for paid family leave in New York as a step in the right direction. The organization plans to expand this tool to other states to help residents access the benefits they are entitled to receive.

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