What You Need to Know About Paternity Leave

Family/Kids, Money

The days when only mothers concerned themselves with childcare are, thankfully, long gone, and more new dads are interested in taking time off work to bond with their bundles of joy. What was once called “maternity leave” has now become “parental leave” in acknowledgment that taking time off work to spend time with a new child is important for both parents.

Many countries, especially in Europe, have generous parental leave laws, but the U.S. isn’t one of them. Formal parental leave doesn’t exist in U.S. law; however the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) allows moms and dads to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for, among other things, the birth, adoption, or fostering of a child.

Of course, there is fine print, so it’s a good idea to know who is eligible. Here are a few guidelines:

Qualifying for FMLA

Unfortunately, not everyone is entitled to even unpaid leave under FMLA. If you work for a very small company, have been there for less than 12 months, or not worked at least 1,250 hours in the past year, or if you are in the top 10% of earners at your company and they would be economically harmed by your absence, you can be denied leave. If you and your partner both work for the same company, you can be limited to 12 weeks total between the two of you, as well.

However, even if you don’t qualify for FMLA by federal standards, your company may have a more open leave policy, so it’s worth asking. Many states, such as California and New Jersey, also have more generous parental leave laws than the federal guidelines.

Creative Paternity Leave Plans

Many men face situations where they can legally take 12 weeks of unpaid leave, but it would create a hardship either for their company, their own careers, or their household finances. In this case, it’s sometimes possible to get creative with unpaid paternity leave. You may choose to combine it with paid vacation time, or divide it into chunks of unpaid leave over the course of the first year. Another option is to take the leave in the form of shorter workdays, or certain days off for a few months. Your employer has to agree to alternate arrangements, of course, but most are likely to prefer partial leave to an entirely absent employee for 12 full weeks.

Additionally, the more advance warning you give your employer, the better chance you have of getting the time off you need. Thirty days notice is a minimum, but consider starting to work out the details as early as the beginning of the second trimester.

Paternity Leave in the Rest of the World

The U.S. is one of only four countries in the world that have no federal law for paid parental leave (the other three being Swaziland, Liberia, and Papua New Guinea). Every other country in the world recognizes the need for new parents to bond with their children and provides varying levels of financial support to do so. In the Czech Republic and Slovakia, for example, one parent (usually the mother, although the father has the option as well) typically stays home with a child for 3 full years, supported by the state.

Sweden allows 16 months of paid leave per child for all working parents, two months of which is actually required to be used by the non-primary parent (usually the father). Laws vary widely by country, but virtually all offer significant paid leave for one or the other parent, and many specifically allow for fathers to take anywhere from a few days to several weeks of paid leave in addition to or in lieu of the mother’s leave. Some countries cover the costs in full, whereas others split the costs with the employers.

Paternity Leave Numbers in America

According to surveys, only around half of American men qualify for unpaid paternity leave, and of the remaining 50%, few actually take it for one reason: they can’t afford to. Even before the American economy collapsed, few families could afford to give up their income for more than a few days and still pay the bills. This isn’t to say that men don’t miss any work when they become new dads, but that most are forced to cobble together paid vacation and sick days rather than taking advantage of FMLA. According to James Levine of the Families and Work Institute of New York, men are only averaging five days off after the birth or adoption of a child, adding that social pressure adds to the problem. The American work ethic is strongly entrenched in our culture, and makes it difficult for many dads to justify taking time off for family reasons.