Pregnancy Leave: Just How Much Is Too Much?

So, I’ve been up north at HRPA 2014 and have learned so much about our Canadian HR sisters and brothers (and like the U.S., it’s still mostly sisters!).

Did you know the maternity leave in Canada is 52 weeks? That’s one year if you’re slow at math like me!

And that can be divided in any manner between the mother and father. Plus, from the peers I spoke to, many get up to 55 percent of their salary for the entire time they’re off.

The U.S. has FMLA (the Family and medical Leave Act) for only 12 weeks. By the way, the women I spoke to, who didn’t know what the U.S. did, were completely shocked by this. But, I was completely shocked by 52 weeks and 55 percent pay!

How much leave is too much leave?

My question to you today is: How much pregnancy leave is too much?

Here are some thoughts I have between the U.S. and Canadian policies:

  • Twelve (12) weeks is too short, and 52 weeks seems too long.
  • I’m not sure how companies manage, especially those with a large female workforce. It would seem like a huge competitive disadvantage to lose your talent for so long and still have to pay out so many resources for not having that talent.
  • I wish I would have had my three sons in Canada.
  • Should government force a corporation to pay an employee for a very personal decision? The company didn’t ask you to have babies, so why should they pay 55 percent of your salary? How is that decision different from many life decisions we make? I want to train for an Ironman Triathlon and I expect it will take me six (6) months. Pay me for that!
  • Canadians game the system just like Americans! My Canadian HR peers had the same war stories as my American peers. One was of a female business owner who got pregnant, and since she owned the business, she didn’t have to claim 52 weeks off. So her husband took all 52 weeks and got paid 55 percent of his salary. The HR person knew this was going on and couldn’t do anything about it. Yes, people are people – given a set of rules they’ll find ways around them.

Is there a perfect amount of maternity leave?

I run a company that has had many pregnancies over the years. I hire an age that falls into the perfect age for baby making! Each time we have one person out for 12 weeks, it’s a stress on the entire team. I can’t even imagine how we would manage for 52 weeks!

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A part of me is glad I don’t have to deal with that. Another part of me wishes we had better maternity leave in the U.S.

I don’t know what the perfect number is, but I’m sure it’s different for each family going through it.

What do you think? What is the perfect amount of pregnancy leave? If you were given the chance to design a plan taking into account both the employee and the company resources, what would you decide to do?

This was originally published on Tim Sackett’s blog, The Tim Sackett Project.

Tim Sackett, MS, SPHR is executive vice president of HRU Technical Resources, a contingent staffing firm in Lansing, MI. Tim has 20 years of HR and talent background split evenly between corporate HR gigs among the Fortune 500 and the HR vendor community ? so he gets it from both sides of the desk. A frequent contributor to the talent blog Fistful of Talent, Tim also speaks at many HR conferences and events. Contact him here.


21 Comments on “Pregnancy Leave: Just How Much Is Too Much?

  1. Before the Canadian’s go crazy on this – let me tell you I’ve learned a few things since this post was written:

    – I understand that the 55% pay is paid out through employment ‘insurance’ by the government funded by taxes paid by employees and employers, not paid out directly by the employer. And, like the US unemployment insurance, there is a max, so it is not 55% of everyone’s pay, but limited to a max amount.

    Okay, you can let me have it now!


    1. Tim – First, full disclosure, I’m a Canadian female who’s had two children and taken the full year of leave with each; second, you sound like a dinosaur. Next time around, do some research before you write and understand that one of the things that makes Canada great and that is a source of pride for those of us who have the privilege to call ourselves Canadian is that we collectively understand that a society cannot and should not punish/penalize women for the biological fact that we are the gender that bears children. As part of that, Canada also recognizes the valuable role that fathers play and allows families to make decisions that are best for them in terms of child care and rearing in their child’s first year of life. Praise socialism. I see the US’s draconian maternity/paternity leave policies as typical of a society that doesn’t value women, mothers and child-rearing in general. While your post didn’t go this far, there were shades of “women should stay home barefoot and pregnant” rather than go out into the work world and inconvenience business owners with their troublesome baby-making.

      1. Mel,

        It’s funny to me that you say I sound like a ‘dinosaur’. I would like to ask when was the last time you saw a male come out and bring this conversation to light? I specifically said the US policy is too short, and wondered if the Canadian policy was the right length and what stress might that put on companies having to not have their ‘great’ female talent for a full 12 month. As many have pointed out, you can just go hire a ‘contractor’ – is that really the same Mel? Is the contractor I bring in as good, or better than you?

        The question, which wasn’t answered, is: What is the appropriate amount of leave parents should have off for maternity? Is it 12 months? Is it 24 months?

        I don’t believe women should stay home ‘barefoot and pregnant’ and I was raised by a mother who started and ran her own very successful business and had two children.

        You are naive, though, to not think ‘resource’ conversations are not had by executives behind closed doors. That’s not draconian, that’s reality. A reality we, as HR pros, must be able to strategically defend. Which is exactly why this dialogue is valuable.


        1. Oh Tim, you compared having a baby to training for an Ironman. It stopped being “raising a conversation” at that point. Since you seem to get quite defensive when people point out that some of your ideas on this topic might be a little antiquated (see me and your response to Angela), let’s agree to disagree.

          1. Mel,

            I think there a lot of women who have had children and ran Ironman races who might agree with the comparison! 😉


  2. More additions –

    First let me say – this post isn’t suppose to be a factual account of the Canadian maternity and parental leave laws! It’s intent to is drive conversation around what should these policies be – what’s good for the families?, what’s good for the companies?, and what is the happy middle ground?

    With that –

    – In my 52 week example of a father taking off a full year – he actually gets ‘parental leave’ of 35 weeks, not the 17 week maternity leave, but that also varies by province. (see I’m not certified to do anything in Canada!)

    – The max benefit a person can receive is $48,600 (or $501 per week). Paid by employee deduction of $1.93 per every $100 made of every Canadian working. The company pay 1.4 times that amount.

    I apologize to the Canadian HR Pros for whom I’ve bungled your leave laws, my intent is to open a broader conversation about the proper amount of leave. But as we often forget about HR pros – we like our details, not the actual strategy conversation…


  3. No no no, the company does not pay 55% of the wages the government does. A great company will top up the 55% to full pay for the first 6 weeksish if they choose. In my view 52 weeks is not long enough. We seem to think that the business of raising creative, talented, engaging, responsible…youth is a 12 week job. News flash it’s not and is sure as a hell of a lot longer than 52 weeks. We need to be a bit more future thinking in our policies.

  4. Working in the Canadian system, I can tell you that I think it is actually easier to hire a replacement for 52 weeks than it would be for 12. I have had to hire 3 mat leave replacements this past year, and I can’t even begin to imagine the hassle of trying to find a 3 month replacement. At a year, many people are willing to take on a mat leave position, because hey, a year is a long time and people decide not to come back to work after a year all the time, so the job may easily turn permanent. They also know that a year of experience that can be shown to be a mat leave replacement looks good to prospective employers. You got your feet wet, understand the job, and now want to do it permanently. As an employer, if the mat leave replacement is excellent, we will find something for them regardless, because you never want to lose an excellent employee if you can help it. Regardless of how you feel about the timing from a parents perspective, I think it makes my job in HR easier.

  5. Tim great post – great to hear you were at HRPA 2014! You are right in stating that the whole leave issue is a hot topic of conversation. As with all debates in HR, the “right” answer is probably “it depends.” Larger organizations can typically absorb the 1 year absence of an employee better than smaller ones can. Chadv makes a great point in stating that it is, in fact, easier to recruit a 1 year replacement than a 3 month replacement. Of course, for many people who take maternity/paternity leave, they do take a major hit in salary to do so, so it really is a personal choice – especially if you were used to making, say $70K a year and now your max is 55% of $48,600!
    Regardless, I think it is great that we Canadians live in a country where we have the option of up to a year to be at home with our child during their first year. I couldn’t imagine if my wife or I couldn’t have been home with our daughter after the 3 month mark! Not sure there is a right answer, but I would throw out that in light of a perfect solution, what we have now is a good solution. With declining birth rates and an aging workforce, we need all the support/opportunity as employees (and HR pros) to start young families and ultimately support Canadian businesses years down the road!

  6. Did I just step into the 1950s? This post sounds like women bearing and raising children are a complete burden to the job market! And comparing an Ironman to growing, bearing, and raising a child?? But aside from that, you are missing the point. Length of maternity leave isn’t the core issue. Smart companies realize that it’s not just providing a fair maternity policy but it’s providing an incredible work opportunity that women want to return to – and continue to excel at. It’s about providing a balanced work-life INTEGRATION (because let’s face it – life – whether work or personal – has become 1 in the same) and it’s about providing the flexibility to ensure women (and men!) can care for their families and also have an exciting and rewarding career. Focusing on the length of maternity leave isn’t the issue – it’s the support and flexibility women return to after they have a child. I’m glad to work for an organization that is fully supportive of this – and progressive with today’s times. It’s only good for their business and makes me want to work even harder for them.

    1. Angela,

      Why is it we’ve gone to the 1950s when we want to have a conversation about something dealing with an issue, that without argument, has major impact on an organizational workforce. It’s part of our reality as HR Pros. We will have employees leave the work environment for extended periods to care for babies. Fact. This has a burden on other workers, the organization, etc. Fact.

      I visited Canada and great face to face conversations with some very sharp and smart Canadian HR Pros would could admit that they loved their countries leave policy, but they could also admit to how this does sometime put their organizations in a disadvantage state. Any solid business professional could not argue this! How can you lose any great talent for 12 months and not have impact you!?

      If I, a US HR Pro, wants to go to my corporation and talk them into a better policy, this kind of conversation with all the Pros and Cons – is exactly the dialogue that has to happen. Instead, you felt it best to attack me for asking the question. I wonder what the reaction would have been if a female US HR Pro would have written this post?


  7. I am a Canadian HR professional and at the company that I work for we have had several maternity leave situations over the past few years. Personally, I think that 52 maternity leave works well. First of all, as somebody already mentioned it is easier to hire a individual on for 52 weeks than 12 weeks. Second of all, if one of my employee’s came back to work after 12 weeks after having a baby. I would be concerned about where their focus is. I do not think that having somebody come back to work after 12 weeks is what is good for either party.

    1. Heather –

      I do think your perception of getting a quality back-fill for 52 weeks would be easier than getting one for 12 weeks. My guess is it is difficult regardless, for your organization when females in critically strategic roles are out for a full 52 weeks – even with a solid replacement.

      Thanks for the comments,

  8. I’m British, where it’s usual to take 12 months away from work when you have a baby. You receive a sliding scale of pay which decreases from the full amount to a statutory amount (paid by the government) up to 9 months, and if you choose to take the final 3 months, your employer is obliged to hold your job open for you. In Germany, where my brother and sister in law live, you get 14 months and the mother and father can swap in and out on that amount. In Singapore, where I now live, it’s 8 weeks after the baby’s birth. So suffice to say, there are some big variations around the world. Considering many women breastfeed until 6 months, I don’t see how it’s reasonable to offer less than that and would be concerned about my own employees’ focus and wellbeing returning to work earlier. After a c-section, many women aren’t physically well for weeks. Unfortunately, the opinion that furthering the human race is a ‘choice’ only women would be subject to make does present a huge problem for women in business: in Singapore where maternity leave is designated at 8 weeks, that is all I will take, even though I own my own business. The government allowance dictates what society then considers to be the norm, so for me to tell my staff that I’ll be taking 6 months (or longer) would raise eyebrows. The idea that choosing to take part in a hobby, like an ironman, is akin to a biological imperative, such as bringing the next generation into the world is a big concern for me. If this kind of conversation is occurring behind or in front of closed doors, it seems there’s a great deal of work still to be done for women looking for equal opportunities in the workplace. I should end this by saying that as a business owner, I analyse the changes our business may be subject to (any changes) as part of my future planning, and considering that my female staff may take maternity leave is one of those considerations. So yes, the conversation is necessary. But to couch this particular scenario in terms that makes the employee appear selfish or not committed to our business is not something I would ever encourage.

    1. Kwoof –

      You make a compelling argument, I agree government should not be dictating what should be culturally ‘normal’. It also was not my intent to compare having a baby with preparing for an ironman race. The intent was to point out that having a baby is a personal choice one makes, you are not forced to do this. Yet, people who have made the choice not to have kids, are being forced to pay for those who are, in the Canadian system.


  9. Here in the Cayman Islands, the labour law allows for 12 weeks maternity leave (not all paid) but some companies choose to give more because they realize there are benefits. Finding coverage for a longer period has its merits, depending on the role. I have seen top performers quit because they don’t have the option to take more time but I have also seen people return to work after 6 weeks – to be fair, I think this is usually driven by a financial need. This has been a topic of discussion here because it is seen as one of the things, along with paternity leave (currently not legislated), that we need to revisit.

  10. Tim – I can see where people might get offended by your post, but I also see the point and questions you were trying to make. I am here in the US and have had 2 children, both C Sections. The first, I took off 4 weeks and the second, only 2 weeks. Not enough time. The only flip side was I was able to bring my child to work with my both times until they were 4 months old (I worked for small family run businesses and they wanted me to return to work). I was paid full salary during my 4 weeks off and nothing for my 2 weeks off (2 seperate companies). It was horrible honestly – distracted by my children, wanting to continue to do a good job for my employer. I don’t think 12 weeks would have been enough time either, but I am not sure a year is the right amount of time either. I would say 6 months is a good time and I do wish I had a salary portion paid for. I know my husband (who only was able to take off 2 days for each child) would have preferred to have been home with us and I would have liked him to have been home. But being unable to afford the unpaid time off, we both had to go back to work. By the time you hit 6 months, you’ve recovered physically, you can still breastfeed, but your child has started solids, most initial doctor visits are done (another time consumer) and your child has usually found a sleeping pattern which means you too have a sleeping patter (another huge problem for working parents).

  11. I am a Canadian woman and thought this was a great article to get some conversation going. Feminists may be letting their delicate sensibilities get bruised and miss the point. I like that we have a long mat leave and feel badly for those who can only take a couple months to be with their baby. It’s sad and somewhat cruel to both parent and child. The concern I have from a business owner’s perspective is how do you ensure the stability of an organization while treating working mothers fairly, and not over compensating so as to disadvantage other workers.

    Thinking of worker A who is with the company for six months when they announce they’re three months pregnant. They work until the one year mark when they leave for maternity for the full year. Worker A is back at the start of year three and after three months is pregnant again. This time, she’s four months along. She works two-thirds of year three when she’s off for another year. She comes back to the last four months of year four claiming she hasn’t been treated fairly because she hasn’t been promoted and her raises are minimal. This is just one of several pregnant women.

    I ask the HR pros out there to lend some insight… When is it unfair to the women who don’t have children, to the men, etc? How do we ethically and fairly act in the best interest of the business and ensure workers have equal opportunity? For woman A who worked 23/48 months and effectively cost the business money in payment, healthcare, retraining, etc. she is treated exceptionally well and would be offended if the childless woman took home more than her, even if that equally-skilled woman cost the business far less in direct and indirect costs.

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