Paternity Leave Rights in the U.S.

A growing number of dads want to take paternity leave to bond with their new babies, but many aren’t entitled to it or they can’t afford to take it under current laws. Here’s everything you need to know…

paternity rights

There are few moments in a child’s life that are as precious as those first few weeks. But many American dads miss out on those first cuddles and smiles because they’re forced to go back to work soon after the birth of their baby.

Research by the U.S. Department of Labor found that paternity leave (especially if it’s extended) can promote father engagement and bonding, improve health and development outcomes for children, and increase gender equity at home and at the workplace.

Despite all these benefits, 70 percent of American fathers take 10 days of leave or less after the birth of a child because current paternity leave laws are so restrictive.

How much leave are dads entitled to?

Under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), most new parents are entitled to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave to care for a newborn or a newly adopted child. But there are conditions: they need to have worked for their employer for at least 12 months, have worked at least 1250 hours over the past 12 months, and work at a location where the company employs 50 or more employees within 75 miles.

Given those conditions, about 40 percent of American workers – including part-timers and small-business employees – aren’t entitled to leave under the FMLA. And many dads who are covered can’t afford to take it anyway, especially if their partner is also taking unpaid parental leave.

Florida couple Dean and Kate were faced with this dilemma when they had their second son 11 years after their first.

“Kate works 25 hours a week, so we just made the cut-off for her to be eligible for the FMLA leave,” says Dean. “I was also eligible because I work full-time, but we couldn’t afford for both of us to take the full 12 weeks.

“My amazing wife took one for the team. She went back to work when Josh was three weeks old so that I could have three months to bond with him. When I returned to work, she reduced her hours so that she could spend more time with him and connect. It was really selfless of her and I’ll always be grateful. I’d missed out on that bonding time with our first son and it was really amazing to have a second chance.”

What about paid paternity leave?

Six states and the District of Columbia have enacted legislation to create paid family leave programs. California, Rhode Island and New Jersey have programs that are currently operating, while New York, Washington State, Massachusetts and the District of Columbia are in the process of implementing their programs and will be paying full benefits by 2020 or 2021 depending on the state.

Existing paid family leave programs offer between four and eight weeks of benefits at a varying percentage of the employee’s average weekly wage up to a weekly maximum. For example, Californian workers can get 60 to 70 percent of their wages for up to six weeks in a 12-month period, with the weekly maximum being $1252.

Some private employers also offer paid parental leave. In 2018, Walmart expanded its policy to six weeks of paid leave for all new parents who are full-time employees, regardless of whether they’re hourly or salaried.

Facebook offers four months of paid leave to all new parents.

And Netflix shocked the country in 2015 by announcing that employees can take up to a year of paid parental leave – and work as little or as much as they want during that time.

“We want employees to have the flexibility and confidence to balance the needs of their growing families without worrying about work or finances,” said Netflix’s chief talent officer Tawni Cranz in a statement. “Parents can return part-time, full-time, or return and then go back out as needed. We’ll just keep paying them normally, eliminating the headache of switching to state or disability pay.”

There’s still a long way to go

Despite that some employers are starting to adopt progressive paternity leave policies, they’re still the exception in the U.S. Most dads who are determined to spend quality time with their newborns are forced to scrounge as many unpaid leave, vacation and sick days as they can. Some even resort to desperate measures to be with their babies.

“I wasn’t entitled to the FMLA scheme when my daughter was born because I hadn’t been with my company for a year,” says accountant Brian. “And I only had a week or so in vacation and sick days saved up. I went back to work after a week, but I couldn’t cope with being stuck in my cubicle while my baby was at home doing amazing baby stuff.

“I told my employer I was taking three weeks off to be with my child and that they could give my job to someone else if they didn’t like it. They told me to keep it quiet, but that my job would still be there when I got back. I’m so glad I did it. You only become a dad once.”