father taking Leave with newborn baby

Paternity Leave in the United States: Where It Is and What’s to Come

Anne Shaw

When Paul Doll’s first child – a daughter – was born in 1984, the idea of taking Paternity Leave to help his wife recover was unusual. Even more outlandish was seeking bonding time with his new baby girl.

“I asked my boss if I could take some personal time,” he remembers. “But she made a fuss and told me I had to use vacation days.” He regrets not having the opportunity to spend more time with his daughter in the days and weeks following her birth, but he had no choice.

At the time, only employed moms were granted Leave after the arrival of a new baby, and this unpaid Leave was a mere six weeks. Fathers simply didn’t receive time off for this special life event to get to know their newborn babies and learn to be a dad. Their only option was to use limited reserves of precious vacation days, a scenario that plays out across the United States to this day.

The Current State of Paternity Leave in the U.S.

A possible reason behind the status of states’ Parental Leave programs could be the passage of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). When Congress enacted FMLA in 1993, one of its selling points was that it guaranteed job-protected time off for workers who needed Leave to care for and bond with new children (by birth, adoption or fostering). But one aspect of FMLA makes it less effective than it could be: Leave taken under FMLA is unpaid. 

The good news is a growing number of states and many companies have put Paid Family Leave policies in place.

Notice the emphasis is on the word family rather than Maternity or Paternity. That’s how various family structures will benefit with these policies.

While we see more states and companies offering Parental Leave programs, many dads still don’t take advantage of these programs. Often, they’re reluctant to take Paternity Leave because they worry about unspoken stigmas that put their careers at risk, even when their employers offer Paid Leave.

Emerging Trends: Employer-Sponsored Paid Parental Leave Plans that Include Paternity Leave

To make up for the lack of federal Paid Parental Leave, some employers–now including the federal government–have gone one step beyond FMLA, offering Paid Leave for new dads and moms.

In December 2019, the Federal Employee Paid Leave Act was enacted. Beginning in October 2020, the U.S. government offered certain civilian employees up to 12 weeks of Paid Parental Leave to care for and bond with a new child.

More and more employers have begun to take up the charge. This is especially true in industries with fierce competition for scarce, highly skilled employees. Working dads in technology and finance, for instance, have a higher chance of getting company paid Parental Leave. Employers in these industries offer new dads anywhere from eight weeks to a full year of Paid Parental Leave. Some companies even offer special programs that support dads by connecting them with other fathers at work.

Inclusive Parental Leave Policies

As is consistent with applicable federal law and guidance, a growing trend shows more companies offering inclusive Parental Leave policies that don’t distinguish between moms and dads. In fact, America’s largest employer began to offer Paid Parental Leave to full-time employees starting in 2018. All parents are eligible for the same amount of Paid Parental Leave.

Fathers are increasingly sharing in Parental Leave responsibilities and benefits formerly reserved for mothers. Even recent legal decisions have shown an expectation that company Parental Leave policies will  not differentiate between moms and dads who want to care for and bond with their new children. This successfully places fathers and mothers on the same playing field.

Parents of all types– single dads and moms, adoptive parents, same-sex couples, and even foster parents–stand to benefit from enhanced, uniform company Parental Leave policies as opposed to separate policies for men and women.

That aside, employers that offer Paid Leave to new parents represent a small fraction of U.S. businesses. Many companies still don’t offer it, and those that do often limit Paid Leave to moms, which in itself is walking a dangerous line of legal non-compliance. In fact, one study found that just 9% of U.S. worksites provide Paid Paternity Leave for fathers. When compared with the rest of the world, the U.S. is far behind.

Parental Leave and Paternity Leave Around the World

Compared to nations of all sizes and levels of wealth, the U.S. is behind when it comes to nationwide Paid Parental Leave policies. Of the 37 countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), only the United States doesn’t have national Paid Maternity, Paternity or Parental Leave.

The numbers aren’t as universal when you focus on Paternity Leave reserved for fathers alone. Still, the U.S. is among a minority of countries that offer none whatsoever.

Switzerland, one of the rare hold-outs, was the last Western European nation to provide fathers with Paid Leave. Recently, however, Swiss voters decided new fathers could have 10 days of Paid-Time Off. Until the referendum passed, Swiss dads had a single day off with their new babies.

When it comes to Paternity Leave, the U.S. has become a genuine outlier compared to the rest of the developed world. Take a look at the United Nations Children’s Fund list of Paid Paternity Leave policies among the world’s richest nations:*

  • 1st – Japan (30.4 weeks)
  • 2nd – South Korea (17.2 weeks)
  • 3rd – Portugal (12.5 weeks)
  • 4th – Sweden (10.9 weeks)
  • 5th – Luxembourg (10.4 weeks)
  • 6th – Norway (9.8 weeks)
  • 7th – Iceland (7.8 weeks)
  • 8th – Austria (6.9 weeks)
  • 9th – Finland (5.7 weeks)
  • 10th – Germany (5.7 weeks)
  • 33rd – United States (tied for last place with 0 weeks)

* Shown are the average number of weeks each country allows.

The Future of Paternity Leave in the U.S.

Though companies and some local and state governments have tried to fill the Paid Leave gap, many Americans are left without. One national organization, Paid Leave for the United States (PL+US) is trying to change that.

The goal of PL+US is to win Paid Family and Medical Leave for every American worker. The benefits they predict include significant gains in Gross Domestic Product (GDP) related to keeping more women in the workforce.

I’m a Dad Advocate

PL+US also sponsors the “I’m a Dad Advocate” program. It asks dads to share their experiences with Paid Paternity Leave, which the organization will then pass along to U.S. legislators. That would sit well with Mr. Doll who we mentioned at the top of this article, who only spent limited time with his newborn daughter nearly 37 years ago.

“If there had been Paternity Leave, I definitely would have used it,” he said. “My wife had six weeks of unpaid Leave, and I only had a week or two of vacation time to be there with her.” Doll is encouraged by current efforts and trends toward improving Parental Leave. He hopes his children and theirs will enjoy better access to it in the future.

How long did you take off for Paternity Leave? Do you feel like it was enough time? Let us know in the comments below.

Legal/Leave Law Disclosure: This informational material shall not be considered legal advice. The Hartford assumes no responsibility for legal compliance with respect to your business practices, and the views and recommendations contained herein shall not constitute our undertaking on your behalf, or for the benefit of others, to determine or warrant that your business operations are in compliance with any law, rule, or regulation. Those seeking resolution of specific legal or business issues, questions, or concerns regarding this topic should consult their own attorney or business advisors.

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