Background In the most recent revision (2003) of the U.S. standard certificate of live births, the National Center for Health Statistics recommended that all states collect maternal and paternal usual occupation. Because such information might be useful in the surveillance of job-related risk areas, we assessed the quality of parental work information on the U.S. birth certificate. Methods Occupational histories obtained from maternal interviews with Texas (USA) participants in the National Birth Defects Prevention Study were linked to and compared with parental work information on birth certificates. With occupational information from interviews serving as the gold standard, we assessed the quality of occupational information on the birth certificate with measures of sensitivity, specificity, and the kappa statistic. Results Of the 649 births available for study, parental occupation agreed between the birth certificate and interview for 77% of mothers and 63% of fathers with similar agreement by case-control status. Among occupations and industries with 10 or more workers by interview, sensitivity of the birth certificate information ranged from 35% to 100% for occupational groups and 55% to 100% for industrial sectors. Specificities of occupations/industries studied ranged from 93 to 100%. Kappa statistics for maternal occupations (0.76 to 0.90) and industries (0.59 to 0.94) were higher than those for paternal occupations (0.48 to 0.92) and industries (0.47 to 0.89). Mothers were frequently misclassified as homemakers or otherwise unemployed while the paternal information was often missing altogether on the birth certificate. Women who worked as health diagnosing and treating practitioners were the least likely (0%) and women in food preparation or serving occupations were the most likely (65%) to be misclassified as not employed on the birth certificate. Among fathers, the proportion of missing occupations was the lowest for occupations in business or financial operations (0%) and highest for occupations in food preparation and serving (30%). Conclusion Sensitivity of occupation/industry information on birth certificates varies although the specificity of such information may exceed 95%. Quality of this information also varies by maternal and paternal occupation with misclassification as homemaker a limiting factor among maternal and missing information a limiting factor among paternal work information.