Paternity Leave Laws in the U.S.

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A look at leave policies that may affect your co-parent—and why the time away is so essential.

Baby makes three, right? So why is it customary that only one parent—typically mom—takes time after birth to rest, recoup and adjust to the responsibilities of life with a new baby?

Obviously, mothers require down time to recover from the journey of pregnancy and the marathon of delivery, but that’s even more reason why partners should have the ability to be at home and help facilitate an environment of healing and bonding. (Google placenta wound after childbirth for an idea of what your hardworking bod has to repair—it’s the size of a dinner plate!) New parents together need the opportunity to separate from the outside world of work, schedules and distractions to focus on their family and get to know their newborn.

After all, even if a father doesn’t leave the office temporarily once baby arrives, doesn’t mean his home-life isn’t coming to work with him. No matter which parent has to wake up and head to a job, both partners are continually dealing with the issues that come with being a new parent—including a serious lack of sleep. Late-night feedings and multiple pediatric appointments can take the focus away from productivity, resulting in a preoccupied, tired co-worker. Employers are becoming increasingly aware of this reality, and many are accommodating new dads in the same way moms have experienced in the past.

Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA)

Paternity leave isn’t a new idea to the rest of the world. In Sweden, a new mother and father get up to 18 months of combined paid leave to welcome their bundle of joy. Although American companies are inching toward being more family minded, you’ll find very few with such an open-wallet interpretation of parental leave. In fact, most abide by the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) for pregnancy, the adoption of a child or foster care placement which, barring a few eligibility exceptions, requires the allowance of 12 full weeks of unpaid leave for employees.

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Yes, you read that right: 12 weeks of unpaid leave. While many other countries around the world offer some sort of paid paternity leave, for fathers in the U.S., this time is often not compensated, not long enough, and not available to all workers. With so many factors stacked against these partners, it’s no wonder why many choose to not take the “benefit” of FMLA leave and remain at work. While the bonding is extremely important, so is a family’s ability to stay afloat, and that one-or-the-other choice is an unfortunate reality for so many U.S. households.

There are some progressive companies scattered about the U.S. (Netflix, Microsoft and Facebook make the list) that fully support new fathers by providing them with paid time off when a new family member comes along. Full salary is rare, though, and many dads find themselves taking off a few days or weeks by using a mix of sick days, vacation and unpaid leave. Obviously, this isn’t an optimal situation with a new child. The good news is that the FMLA guarantees that you’ll still receive benefits and your same job upon your return to the workforce.

Generally, you are required to request paternity leave at least 30 days before your scheduled time off; however, it would probably be in your best interest to discuss the situation with your employer long before that point. The only way to find out your company’s specific policies is to talk to your HR department. They will know the ins and outs (or the existence) of paternity leave within your company.

Afterwards, present the idea to your boss, offering solutions as to how your work will be completed, and how long you plan to be away. You’ll probably get a much better reaction if you come forward with a plan, rather than with a slew of problems.

States Offering Paid Parental Leave

On a federal level, FMLA is the only leave program currently available, but certain states have opted to mandate paid family leave. (Note that the range of income during leave varies.) Here’s the breakdown of what each state offers:

California (2019): The New Parent Leave Act offers up to 12 weeks paid leave to parents working for a company with 20 employees or more.

Massachusetts (2019): The Massachusetts Paid Family and Medical Leave Act (MA PFML) provides up to 12 weeks for parents who work at companies where the employer pays into the unemployment insurance fund. This ensures the protection of workers who commute to Massachusetts but work in a different state to still receive paid leave.

New Jersey (2008): The New Jersey Family Leave Act was recently amended and now allows eligible employees the right to take up to 12 weeks off from work in a 24-month period.

Rhode Island (2013): The Rhode Island Parental and Family Medical Leave Act (RIPFML) ups the ante with 13 weeks of leave in a 24-month period. This applies to serious health conditions including pregnancy and childbirth.

New York (2018): The New York State Paid Family Leave act was initially introduced with a phase-in approach but has since updated its guidelines as of 2022, extending to more workers. Eligible employees can receive up to 12 weeks of paid leave.

Washington (2020): The Washington Paid Family and Medical Leave act allows employees to take off work for up to 12 weeks in a year. It specifies caregiving as part of what’s considered grounds for family leave.

Connecticut (2022): The Connecticut Family and Medical Leave Act (CTFMLA) now gives qualifying employees the ability to request up to 12 weeks of leave in a 12-month period instead of its previous 16 weeks in a 24-month period.

Oregon (2019): The Oregon Family Leave Act (OFLA) will provide income support for up to 12 weeks for both mothers and fathers after January 1, 2023. Currently, short-term disability is the only option for mothers needing wage replacement benefits, and you must enroll before conception.

Benefits of Paternity Leave

Being available in the early stages of your child’s life is paramount. Evidence on infancy suggests that early bonding has an effect on the long-term mental health and resilience of children.

Not only are babies fully reliant on their parents, but they experience huge brain development, growth and neuron pruning by age 2. These developments (including social, emotional and cognitive development) are impacted largely by a loving bond or attachment relationship with a parent or primary caregiver. Infants who undergo neglect, a lack of love or inconsistent care from a parent may be prone to mental health problems as well as reduced overall potential and happiness.

By offering a no-strings-attached leave policy, fathers are granted the opportunity to better connect with their newborns and support their postpartum partners without the pressure of work and finances.

Another reason paternity leave is becoming all the more relevant is because mothers are finding themselves in situations of shortened maternity leave. According to women’s rights attorney and founding partner of Tuckner, Sipser, Weinstock & Sipser, LLP, Jack Tuckner: “Paternity leave is on the rise for the simple fact that women are demanding that their [partners] take an active part in early child rearing, partly so that they may shorten their own maternity leaves in order to stay career-competitive.”

Many families depend on a mother’s career—especially in situations where the woman is paid equally or more than her partner—so when a parental hiatus becomes a necessity, the family hurts financially and the mother’s career suffers. “The fact that women have historically stayed home with the baby for three months while men have taken only one or two days off is implicated in all ‘mommy track’ workplace issues, i.e., the loss of momentum of women in their careers … while out on an extended leave,” notes Tuckner.

Even if you’re not in a demanding career path, most mothers find solace in the idea of their partner sharing in the joys and burdens that early child-rearing can bring. Sharing duties allows time for each parent to form a loving relationship with their new kiddo, and it also keeps nerves calm and quells arguments that arise from one parent being overworked and feeling unappreciated.

Lastly, the more fathers take paternity leave, the more normalized it will become, lessening the stigma and expectation of gender roles in parenting. Acknowledging that both parents matter in the life of a child and deserve time to bond is a basic, fundamental human response to the question of how we build up the family and raise happy, healthy children.

Lauren Lisle

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