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Paternity Leave Options Give Dads a Break from Work, Too

Paternity Leave Options Give Dads a Break from Work, Too

In our mercilessly competitive global economy, do men actually take leave from work when a new baby comes into their lives? According to the 2007 Monster Intelligence Father’s Day Survey, 58 percent of working fathers whose companies offered paternity leave took advantage of the benefit.     

Men are more likely to take paternity leave if they understand how it works and how common it is for working dads at some companies to grant themselves irreplaceable time with their newborn or newly placed children.

With all the new working fathers of America in mind, here’s a primer on paternity leave in the 21st century.

Unpaid Paternity Leave Is Mandated by Federal Law

The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) requires employers to provide up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to workers with a new child, including adopted and foster children. FMLA has its limits, however; the law excludes 61 million men and women -- about 40 percent of the American workforce -- because they haven’t put in enough time with the employer or their company has fewer than 50 workers, according to a report by the United Auto Workers. Also, those who are protected under this Act can use up to a total of 12 weeks' unpaid leave per year. So if you take FMLA-covered time off work to care for an aging parent and then have a new baby in the same calendar year, you can only take a total of 12 weeks off under the FMLA.

Still, FMLA provides strong protection for those it does cover. “When the requirements are met, there’s not much that employers can do to deny it; it’s not discretionary,” says Maureen Gorman, an attorney with Jeffery M. Leving Ltd. After an approved FMLA leave is complete, “the law says you have to be restored to your job. But if your job was eliminated for other legitimate reasons [such as a downsizing], the employee can say you don’t have a job,” Gorman adds.

If you believe you have been wrongfully denied FMLA leave, you can contact the US Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division office in your state. Where state law might be involved, contact your state labor office.

US Paid Paternity Leave Programs Don’t Measure Up

Of course, many workers find it difficult or impossible to consider giving up weeks or months of pay, especially after outfitting a baby’s room or seeding a college savings fund.

The US is much less generous with paid parental leave than many developed countries. There is no federal paid parental leave program in America, and just 17 percent of employers provide paternity leave with pay, according to a 2010 benefits survey from the Society for Human Resource Management. By comparison, Canada provides 55 percent of pay or up to $413 a week of parental leave, shared between father and mother, according to the International Labour Organization. Italian working fathers can take three months’ leave at 80 percent pay.

The good news is that some US states have begun stepping in to provide paid paternity leave. California’s Paid Family Leave program offers six weeks of leave with 55 percent pay to parents with new children. Other states are considering following California’s lead.

Select Private Firms Funding New Dads’ Leave

Some companies have decided to create a paid paternity leave benefit for their employees, seeing it as a good investment in the workforce. “It helps with retention and to build loyalty to the firm,” says Maryella Gockel, flexibility strategy leader at accounting and advisory firm Ernst & Young.

Ernst recently boosted its paid paternity leave from two weeks to six. “Some men take two weeks when the baby is born, then another four weeks when mom goes back to work,” says Gockel.

Another Big Four firm, KPMG, offers two weeks of paid leave to fathers of new children. “We’ve had an incredible take-up on this benefit,” says Barbara Wankoff, national director of workplace solutions. “Eighty-five percent of eligible dads take paternity leave; the rate was 30 percent in the program’s first year,” which was 2002.

Paid Leave Doesn’t Always Equal a Free Lunch

So how does the work get done when fathers go on leave? When employees are exempt from overtime pay, companies are less likely to hire temporary replacements. “We had four dads in the same office all expecting, and they covered for each other,” Wankoff says.

And many white-collar workers can’t or don’t entirely let go of their professional responsibilities when they’re home rocking the baby to sleep and changing diapers. Whether and how much working fathers continue to labor while on leave “varies per person and according to circumstances,” says Gockel. “If you’re in the middle of a big [business] deal, the transition to leave may take longer.”

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