November 10, 2016

Baby On Board With Military Maternity Leave Policy

By Natalia Gurevich, SWHR Communications Intern

Veteran’s Day is a revered holiday that induces images of crisp uniforms, waving flags, and national pride. This Veteran’s Day, in addition to thanking all veterans for their service, SWHR has examined a national issue that has made some progress, but one we cannot be completely proud of  yet—maternity leave policy and subsequent health concerns for the average woman and for those serving in the armed forces.

Currently, all branches of the U.S. military provide a standard 12-week paid maternity leave. In January of this year, the Navy and Marine Corps slashed their maternity leave policies down from a generous 18 weeks to just 12 weeks [1]. This change was made in order to double the Army and Air Force’s previous six-week policies [2].

The current paid maternity leave policy for the military is generous compared to maternity leave policies offered by the majority of U.S. employers – most of whom do not offer paid maternity leave. However, compared to the rest of the developed world, the U.S. is sorely lacking in maternity benefits and care with private, federal, and public employers.

Only four states in the U.S. have instituted paid maternity leave laws: California, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island. California offers new mothers up to six weeks, at 55 percent of their salary. New Jersey offers six weeks and two-thirds of salary, while Rhode Island pays four weeks at 60 percent of salary [4]. In the United States, there is no federal mandate for maternity leave. However, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which became law in 1993,  allows “qualified employees to take 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave for specific family and medical reasons” [4]. Family planning, including having a baby, falls under this law, along with adoption and foster care of a child, caring for an immediate family member (spouse, child, or parent) suffering a serious health condition, or personal medical leave [8].

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 12 percent of Americans have access to paid parental leave and only five percent of low-wage earners receive paid maternity leave [4]. In contrast, women in the military have better care than the average woman in the workforce. Although women in the military only receive 12 weeks, the time is paid in full. U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter has also made supplemental changes for new mothers, including the installation of “mother’s rooms,” at military bases with more than 50 women, where women can go to breastfeed in privacy. In addition to family planning, Carter proposed to extend childcare facility hours to 14 hours a day on military bases, and is offering female and male soldiers the opportunity to freeze their eggs or sperm in case of an accident in combat.

While the U.S. military has a generous maternity leave policy compared to the rest of the country, the U.S. is one of only three countries in the world that doesn’t offer some standard form of paid maternity leave, along with Suriname and Papua New Guinea [5]. However, 12 weeks is the bare minimum, with several countries allowing 52 weeks or more of paid maternity leave [5]. Sweden and Norway offer a year of paid leave for the mother and the father, and research has shown that families are more productive in the workforce if they are given this length of time [6]. Mothers are also less likely to suffer from post-partum depression and anxiety if they are provided paid family leave [9]., Studies also show that paid family leave decreases chances of infant mortality, increases breastfeeding length and rates, and improves child development overall [9].

According to a 2011 study by California’s Center for Economic and Policy Research, after the state of California implemented paid leave, 91 percent of businesses said it had a positive effect on profitability or no effect at all [7]. Essentially, there were no disadvantages, and implementing paid leave encouraged those starting families to stay in the workforce. Many women who take paid leave wind up returning to work later, as opposed to leaving to become a stay-at-home mother[4].

The U.S. military provides a much needed maternity leave policy for our female armed service members. Women who serve now have a much needed sense of security for their family planning. However, the same courtesy should be extended to all women who work in the U.S., contributing to our economy and ultimately improving the standard of living. As a country, our maternity leave policies are severely lacking when compared to the rest of the world. The U.S. military’s maternity leave policy is a positive example of what other employers should follow.

SWHR believes women should have the comfort and support they need when and if they choose to start a family. This Veteran’s Day we commend the women who have served or are serving in our armed forces. We hope that all women in the workforce can one day benefit from a similar maternity leave policy as our female soldiers.

For more information about our work in women’s health, visit