Paternity leave: What are the options for dads?

Paternity leave: What are the options for dads?

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What is paternity leave?

Paternity leave is the time a father takes off work at the birth or adoption of a child. This kind of leave is rarely paid.

A few progressive companies offer new dads paid time off ranging from a few days to a few weeks. California was the first state to offer paid family leave. (If you work in that state, you may be able to take up to six weeks at partial pay to care for your new baby.)

Rhode Island and New Jersey have also passed paid family leave laws, and other states have considered similar bills. In the meantime, though, most fathers take vacation time or sick days when their children are born, and a growing number of new dads are taking unpaid family leave from their jobs to spend more time with their newborns.

What you need to do to get ready for paternity leave.

How can I find out if I'm entitled to unpaid leave?

Start by talking to your company's human resources department. Many employers are required by federal law to allow their employees (both men and women) 12 weeks of unpaid family leave after the birth or adoption of a child under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). At the end of your leave, your employer must allow you to return to your job or a similar job with the same salary, benefits, working conditions, and seniority.

You're eligible if you meet both of the following conditions:

  • You work for the federal government, a state or local government, a public or private elementary or secondary school, or any company that has 50 or more employees working 20 or more workweeks in the current or preceding calendar year and residing within 75 miles of your workplace.
  • You've worked for your employer for at least 12 months and for at least 1,250 hours during the previous year (which comes out to 25 hours per week for 50 weeks).

There are a few exceptions: If you're in the highest paid 10 percent of wage earners at your company and your manager can show that your absence would cause substantial economic harm to the organization, you can be denied "restoration," which is the guarantee that you can return to the same or an equivalent job.

However, your employer must still offer you a "reasonable opportunity" to return to work. If you are designated a "key employee," it's best to make sure you know exactly what your status will be when you're ready to return.

Another exception is if you and your partner both work for the same company. In this case, you're entitled only to a combined 12 weeks of parental leave between the two of you.

Even if you're not eligible under the FMLA, you may still be eligible for leave under your state's provisions, which are usually more generous than the FMLA, or under your company's policy.

Your company may require that any paid leave you take count toward the 12 weeks allowed under FMLA. But some states allow you to take the full 12 weeks in addition to whatever paid leave you've taken, and individual employers may also allow this.

You can use your unpaid leave in any way you want during the first year after your child is born or placed with you. That means you can take it all at once or, as long as your employer agrees, spread it out over your child's first year by taking it in chunks or reducing your normal weekly or daily work schedule.

What happens to my benefits while I'm out on leave?

According to the FMLA, your employer must continue to keep you on their health insurance plan while you're on leave. Usually companies pay your premiums but ask that you reimburse them the amount that's usually taken out of your paycheck.

If your job is terminated while you're on leave or you tell your company you don't intend to return to work, your employer may stop paying your premiums and put you on COBRA, a program in which you continue to be covered under the same plan but pay the entire premium yourself.

Your employer may even require you to pay back the money spent to maintain your health insurance while you were on leave. That's unless the reason you don't return to work is because you've developed a serious medical condition or there's some other circumstance beyond your control (say, your spouse is transferred to a job in another city and you have to relocate).

The FMLA doesn't require employers to allow you to accrue benefits or time toward seniority when you're out on leave. That means the clock may stop on things like vacation accrual and the amount of time you can say you've been with the company in order to qualify for things like:

  • raises based on seniority or length of service
  • additional vacation days per year
  • participation in your company's 401(k) plan or vesting of your company's matching investment
  • vesting of stock options

You also won't be able to contribute to your 401(k) or flexible spending account while you're on unpaid leave (because you can't contribute pre-tax dollars if you're not receiving a paycheck).

What if I'm adopting a child or taking in a foster child?

You may take FMLA leave, vacation time, or possibly accrued sick leave if you're adopting or taking in a foster child. Generally, leave begins once the child arrives at your home (or when you leave to get the child if adopting from another country). You may also be eligible to take time off during the adoption process to meet with lawyers or attend home visits.

Will taking paternity leave hurt my career?

It's illegal for an employer to discriminate against an employee who has taken leave. But this is still a common concern for men, and it makes many reluctant to take paternity leave. There's no way to tell for sure how your job will be affected – every employee's situation is different.

To determine how taking leave might play at your company, find out whether other men have done it and how they were treated by their co-workers and bosses. It may be easier for you if others have successfully blazed the trail.

Why would a company or boss be reluctant to allow paternity leave? According to Ross Parke, professor of psychology at the University of California at Riverside, the reasons range from misinformation to ignorance to financial constraints.

But Parke believes societal factors are primarily to blame. In researching his book with Armin Brott, Throwaway Dads, Parke found that the primary obstacle existed in the minds of the fathers who feared it would harm their career.

"Offering paternity leave is only half the battle," he says. "The real problem is getting men to actually take it."

Perceptions are changing, however. A national survey showed that across the board, large majorities of men and women say that it's important for employers to give workers time off to meet family responsibilities. Similarly, both men and women support expansion of the FMLA.

How and when should I request leave?

Federal guidelines require you to request leave 30 days before you plan to take it, but it may be best to give your boss even more notice. Consider discussing paternity leave with your employer as soon as you're ready to announce the pregnancy – usually after your partner's first trimester, when the chances of miscarriage go down significantly.

You'll be in a stronger position to negotiate a leave if you approach your boss with a specific plan and allow your boss plenty of time to help you implement it. Offer your boss solutions rather than problems by having some ideas for how your work can be handled while you're away. Consider asking for leave and getting approval early in the pregnancy, even if you're not sure you'll want to or be able to take unpaid leave when the time comes. It's easier to come back early than it is to ask for more time.

What if my employer denies my request for paternity leave?

If you're sure you qualify under the FMLA or your state's provisions and you've given the required notice, gently let your employer know more about these laws.

Print out a copy of the FMLA fact sheet available from the U.S. Department of Labor. But start by being reasonable. You don't want to alienate your boss by making demands unless you have to.

If reason doesn't work and you believe you're entitled to leave, contact your regional office of the Labor Department's Wage and Hour Division to file a complaint. A phone call from the Labor Department to your employer can often resolve problems.

If the problem isn't resolved, the Labor Department will investigate your complaint and may sue your employer on your behalf. If you don't get immediate results, consider hiring a lawyer who is familiar with employees' rights to help you.

What if I don't qualify for leave under FMLA?

If you work only part time or for a small company, you don't qualify for paternity leave under FMLA and your employer may not provide this benefit. The next step may be to find out whether you're entitled to some kind of leave under your state's laws, which may be more generous than the FMLA. Check with your state labor department to find out if any benefits are available to you.

If you're not covered by federal or state legislation, it can't hurt to ask your boss for a leave of absence anyway. Many companies will still be willing to negotiate some sort of time off for a valued employee. The earlier you start making a case for yourself as a valuable, hard-working employee, the better position you'll be in.

If you're affiliated with a labor union, ask your union representative or your manager whether you qualify for leave under union rules.

Talking with other new dads about how they managed time away from work might give you more creative ideas about how to take time off to bond with your newborn child.

How can I make the most of my time with my family if I can't take unpaid leave?

If you're not able to take paternity leave, here are a few ideas for maximizing your time with your new family:

  • See if it's possible to work extra hours before your baby comes and exchange it for time off after the birth.
  • On nights when you don't have to work the next day, have your partner wake you up when the baby is finished nursing so you can be the one to rock her back to sleep. Or take turns getting up for feedings.
  • Your child will experience many "firsts" in her first year of life – such as her first bath or her first trip to the zoo. Whenever these events can be scheduled, do so when you have time off from work.
  • During the first year of your baby's life, look at your schedule and make a note of any activities that take you away from your baby. Consider saying no to some of those events to spend more time with your newborn.

Where can I get more information on paternity leave?

For more information on the FMLA and family leave policies contact:

U.S. Department of Labor, Wage and Hour Division
Phone: (866) 487-9243
How to tell whether you're eligible under FMLA
What your employer needs to do to comply with FMLA

National Partnership for Women & Families
Phone: (202) 986-2600
Email: [email protected]

Families and Work Institute
Phone: (212) 465-2044
Email: [email protected]

Watch the video: Father Suing Employer Over Maternity Leave Discrimination (June 2022).