Paternity Leave in the US
Since 1993, new parents (both moms and dads) in the US have been assured time off from work after the birth or adoption of a child. But even though your job will be protected, you’re not likely to get paid. This adds extra stress during a time that’s already filled with sleepless nights and new anxieties. The kicker is that the US is the only developed nation that doesn’t pay new parents when they take time off to care for new family members.
But what does this mean for you? Paternity leave in the US varies depending on where you live and where you work. Because these rules and requirements can be confusing, we put together this cheat sheet to point you in the right direction.
What Is Paternity Leave?
Simply put, paternity leave is when a father takes time off from work to stay home and help with a new baby or child. This gives time for the family to adjust to its new normal, and provides valuable bonding time among all family members. It also offers extra support to a spouse or domestic partner during this important time.
Paternity Leave Laws Across the US
The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) is a federal law that requires companies with more than 50 employees to provide 12 weeks of leave to new parents, but no pay is guaranteed. In fact, only four states currently require paid maternity and paternity leave: New York, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and California.
But not all hope is lost. Even if you live in a state without paid paternity leave requirements, you may still be able to get paid leave if it’s offered by your company. Employers may offer anywhere from zero days to 16 weeks of paid leave. But those benefits are offered solely at the discretion of the company. Some new parents need to save up sick time or vacation days to defray the cost of lost wages. Other companies may offer short-term disability insurance, which pays out a percentage of your regular pay for a specified number of weeks.
Changing Attitudes About Paternity Leave
Your father may not have counted paid paternity leave as a priority when choosing an employer, but new dads today are demanding more. When it comes to paid paternity leave, 83 percent of millennials said they’d be more likely to commit to a company that offered it, and 38 percent said they’d consider leaving the US to get this benefit.
Although paternity leave is becoming more accepted, it still carries a stigma that some fathers fear. One dad, named Norman, told “Esquire” about his experience becoming a new father.
“When our kids were born…I hadn’t accumulated enough vacation time to be able to take more than a day or two off. This was in the early ’80s, so the concept of parental leave wasn’t even in the picture yet. It was pretty much still the case that Mom stopped working (without pay, of course), while Dad took a few days off if possible…I don’t know how much things have changed since then, but the concept of parental leave is a good one.”
To answer Norman’s inquiry about how much things have changed, another dad talked about his 16 weeks of paid paternity leave.
“I received 16 weeks full pay. It’s a crazy amount. I did take it all, and there was some judgment about it, sort of, ‘You’re the man, that’s what women are supposed to do.’ It’s a field dominated by the old guard. HR wouldn’t have allowed any repercussions, but I would say I don’t see any big promotions coming my way anytime soon.”
It’s obvious that while paternity leave is gaining acceptance, it’s still a topic of some debate and risk for new dads. Despite studies that show the benefits of paid family leave for both parents and children (10 percent lower mortality rate, reduction of postpartum depression symptoms, and more equally-shared child-rearing duties), states and companies are slow to adopt the more generous policies of other countries.
In the European Union, the average paternity leave is 12.5 days—ranging for 64 days in Slovenia to just one day in Italy. And for leave shorter than seven days, dads in every country receive 100 percent of their wages.
What Can You Do?
As the tide turns, one thing you can do is push for more paid paternity leave. Let your employers and legislators know that this is an important issue for you. But until the day when the US catches up to the rest of the world, here are some practical steps to help you figure out how to make paternity leave work for you no matter your employer’s policies:
- Plan ahead. Make sure your office is prepared to function without you. Put a plan in place early to let your employer know that you’re committed to your position and your family. By not leaving them in a lurch, you gain credibility and trust that you can take leave without an ensuing disaster.
- Work as long as possible. Don’t take leave early. Start your leave when your partner goes into labor and not a minute sooner. This maximizes the time you get to spend actually supporting the mother and bonding with your new blessing.
- Be flexible. Sometimes you just can’t afford to be unreachable for a few months. In those cases, set up very defined boundaries about your availability. Make sure you’re available for things like quick questions, but no actual work. This isn’t a time for you to save the day with a brilliant presentation or take on a new client. Be available as needed, but firm in your boundaries.
- Coordinate leave with your partner. Depending on what each of you have available as far as family leave goes, it might make sense for you to stagger your paternal leave with the mother’s leave. While this might not be the perfect solution, it may let your baby have more time at home with a parent, even if it’s not always at the same time.
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