Unhappy Father’s Day! Paid Paternity Leave Far From Reality in United States

Kari Lydersen

A kindergartner, his sister and their father on his first day of school in New Orleans, Louisiana. Few fathers in the U.S. have unpaid job-protected leave to deal with family responsibilities or emergencies. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Many of the young fathers who celebrated Father’s Day on Sunday are more interested than ever in taking an active care-giving and social role in their children’s lives, according to studies cited in a new report by the National Partnership for Women and Families. But especially in the tight economy, relatively few fathers have access to paid family leave after the birth of a child or when a child is sick, and too few fathers even have unpaid job-protected leave to deal with family emergencies and responsibilities.

The Partnership’s report, Dads Expect Better: Top States for New Dads,” evaluates state laws beyond the federal requirements of the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) implemented in 1993, which guarantees a certain amount of unpaid leave for employees with more than 1,250 hours of service at workplaces with at least 50 employees. In May, the Partnership released Expecting Better: A State-by-State Analysis of Laws that Help New Parents.”

The report on fathers paints a dire picture of the paltry paid and unpaid leave afforded parents. It also makes the case that more family leave for fathers helps women and children and even society as a whole, citing studies that show when fathers (and mothers) get better leave, families are less likely to need public assistance. 

It notes that fathers are better able to share household and caregiving duties with women when they have more leave and job protection, which can lessen the work and earning inequities between men and women and help children have closer relationships with their fathers and better role models for gender equity. The report cites longitudinal evidence that fathers who could take paid leave immediately after a child’s birth remained more involved in their lives down the line. 

Family leave is of course also especially important to single working fathers, who like single mothers can often be in the painful and terrifying position of losing a badly needed job or wages when a child is sick. The report found fathers report more conflict between their work and family life than before, in fact at higher rates than women report conflict, perhaps because of men’s increasing desire to be involved with their children.

The report notes that only the District of Columbia and Connecticut guarantee workers the right to earn paid sick days. It says the United States ranks among the middle of 21 highly competitive countries in the amount of leave granted to new fathers, with 12 unpaid weeks mandated under the FMLA.

However, on average, men take only 10.4 weeks of unpaid leave, and many cannot afford unpaid leave at all. Even the best employers typically don’t offer more than three weeks of paid paternity leave, with the amount declining since 2005. That compares to 31 countries that guarantee or offer 14 weeks or more of paid paternity leave.

After California implemented the nation’s first paternity leave insurance program in 2005, the amount of leave fathers took almost tripled from three to eight weeks, and the likelihood they would take leave at all more than doubled to three-quarters. Ratings for the social acceptability of taking paternity leave also climbed. Along with California, New Jersey also has a family leave insurance program covering mothers and fathers. Studies show a significant majority of Americans support expanded paternity and maternity and family leave rights.

The report ranks the District of Columbia and the 14 states that do offer guaranteed family-leave rights for fathers on factors including the amount of paid and unpaid job-protected leave, whether leave laws cover small businesses or newer employees not covered under the FMLA and whether fathers can take leave to care for a same-sex or domestic partner’s child. The District of Columbia ranked first, followed by Connecticut and New Jersey in second place, then California. Maine, Oregon, Washington, Kentucky, Rhode Island, Wisconsin, Hawaii, Tennessee, Maryland and Minnesota also joined the list.

Despite the imperative – for workers and families, for businesses and for communities – to adapt our nation’s policies to the realities of the 21st century workforce, progress is painfully slow,” the report notes. The arrival of a child should be cause for celebration. For millions of parents throughout the United States, however, a child’s birth or adoption means stretched finances and unsettling concerns about whether caring for their child will cost them their jobs and jeopardize their families’ financial security.”

Kari Lydersen is a Chicago-based reporter, author and journalism instructor, leading the Social Justice & Investigative specialization in the graduate program at Northwestern University. She is the author of Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.
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