Paternity Leave 101: Laws, Rights, and Other Basic Things You Should Know
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Matt* is an architect, and a new dad to an adorable baby girl in Brooklyn, New York. He recently shared with us that he went to his employer and told them he and his wife were expecting a new baby and wanted to know what his paternity leave was. Their response? “We follow the law.”
This was a frustrating response, since Matt didn’t know exactly what the law was. So he went looking online for information which is how he found us. This article is dedicated to Matt (*whose name has been changed) and all the other fathers, fathers-to-be, and their partners looking for information about paternity leave.
What is paternity leave?
What people refer to as paternity leave is the period of time when a father stops working because he is about to have, or has just had (or adopted) a baby. Sometimes this is called family leave or parental leave because this leave can apply to mothers, fathers, or domestic partners. A company may or may not have an official paternity leave policy, and paternity leave can either be paid or unpaid. Typically, however, in the United States, new dads do not receive paid time off after the birth of a new child.
What paternity leave rights do I have?
Most American fathers receive no pay during the period after their child is born. New parents (of any gender) rely on federal law (called the Family and Medical Leave Act or FMLA) to protect their job for up to 12 weeks after a birth or adoption. This means that new fathers are entitled to return to their positions after a period of absence without penalty in pay or position. To be clear, FMLA does not guarantee any pay during this 12 week period. Also, FMLA does not apply to everyone. FMLA offers job protection during your time off if you qualify, i.e. if you work at a company with more than 50 employees within 75 miles of your workplace and you have worked there a minimum of 1,250 hours during the prior year. There are a few more requirements that must be met to receiving Family and Medical Leave Act protections (e.g. if you have a spouse working at the same company who also tries to qualify for leave under FMLA things are more complex). You can read more about FMLA rules and exceptions on the U.S. Department of Labor’s website.
In addition to federal law, 25 states have supplemented FMLA protections by providing either longer leave (e.g. up to 16 weeks), lowering the minimum employer size to below 50, or even requiring private employers to pay for maternity leave or paternity leave (up to some cap). You can read more about state laws that may impact you or your partner in California, New Jersey, Rhode Island and New York state.
What is my company’s paternity leave policy?
There is no perfect data on how many private employers cover paternity leave (on either a paid or unpaid basis). We do know that approximately 16% of private employers fund paid paternity leave programs based on a 2010 benefits survey from the Society for Human Resource Management. Fairygodboss has crowdsourced a range of corporate policies for thousands of companies from our members. Paternity leave is a feature of the parental leave database and as of 2016, there were 160 employers in the database that offered at least one week of paid leave for fathers. Some additional employers offered unpaid leave to new dads.
The only way to be sure that you do not qualify under a parental leave policy on a paid or unpaid basis is to ask your HR department or benefits administrator for information. Sometimes, your employee handbook will also include this information. Remember that while there may be an official policy about leave, you can always try to negotiate for more time or some pay during your time off (which is especially the case if you plan to continue working part-time).
Do I receive benefits while I’m on paternity leave?
Most companies that offer fully-paid paternity leave typically cover your other full-time employee benefits during this period.
If you are taking paternity leave under FMLA, one definite paternity benefit is that your company must continue to keep you on its health insurance plan while you're on leave. However, the company has the legal right to ask for the reimbursement of your health insurance premium payments if you do not return after your FMLA leave. Also, 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, participation in your company's 401k plan or the vesting of your company's matching investment, or stock options. Finally, you won't be able to contribute to your 401k or flexible spending account while you're on leave because you're not receiving a paycheck from your employer and thus can't contribute pre-tax dollars.
What if I'm adopting a child or taking in a foster child?
Some employers will offer adoptive parents identical or similar policies as those given to birth parents. Under FMLA, you are allowed to take 12 weeks of unpaid leave for the adoption of a child. And again, depending on where you work, certain states will offer you some sort of family or medical leave rights.
When and how should I request leave?
For those who work for one of the few employers who have a paternity leave policy, this is largely a personal decision or may even require following the processes of your individual employer. Under FMLA, you are required to request parental leave with at least 30 days advance notice.
When can I take my paternity leave?
Legally, if you are using FMLA leave, you may take time off at any time during your partner’s pregnancy or even after childbirth (within one year of your child's birth). Some new fathers may want to take their paternity leave after the child’s mother has exhausted hers, since certain things may not be feasible for a new dad (e.g. breastfeeding).
The other two factors to consider are your household finances and the amount of physical labor or stress your job entails. Taking care of a newborn is an exhausting 24/7 job that usually entails sleep deprivation. If you decide to take an early paternity leave due to your partner’s medical condition or simply because you want to be there for the initial days of your baby’s new life, you have every right to take FMLA right after the birth of your child. Keep in mind that if you plan on negotiating for more leave, or leave that’s not in one block of time (e.g. two weeks initially after the birth of your child followed by 10 weeks after your child’s other parent has returned to work), you may need to work this out with your employer. You may also be required by your employer to use your paid time off, such as your sick days and vacation days, before you are entitled to FMLA leave.
What does the future of paternity leave in the U.S. look like?
There’s a possibility that the state of paternity leave — and maternity leave too, for that matter — may change in a pretty significant way for Americans in the near future.
Back in May 2017, senior White House aides revealed that President Trump’s first detailed budget request — titled, in uber-Trump fashion, "A New Foundation for American Greatness" — will include the seeking of funds to create a mandatory paid parental leave program, inclusive of both birth and adoptive mothers and fathers. The news came as a surprise to many, considering the subject of paid leave for U.S. employees has long been opposed by Republicans and seemed at odds with the rest of Trump’s proposal, which was intent on eliminating government spending on nondefense measures.
Regardless of one’s attitude toward the Trump administration, the creation of such a program would be a huge victory for U.S. working parents and their work-life balance, though some of the particulars seem a bit murky as of this July 2017 writing. Still feeling uncertain about the details behind a paid leave program and its potential impact on our country? Here’s what you need to know:
1. President Trump’s proposed program would grant both mothers and fathers six weeks of paid leave after the birth or adoption of a child — a significantly more inclusive arrangement than what was outlined in the First Daughter’s book. (Initially, her advocations for paid leave extended to biological mothers only.)
2. Ivanka Trump will take the helm in discussions with Congress about the program’s construction, according to the Washington Post.
3. President Trump first introduced the idea of instituting paid leave back in September during the elections, but like his daughter, his initial plan only covered biological mothers. The proposal’s May 2017 incarnation seemed to have taken liberal backlash into account.
4. The paid family leave program, which would be paid out to participants through the U.S. unemployment insurance system, is expected to cost about $25 billion over 10 years and would benefit about 1.3 million people, White House aides said.
5. How the program would be funded is still largely to be determined, but the New York Times reported that the administration will work with states individually to find ways to pay for it — an admittedly vague solution.
6. There wouldn’t be an income limit for participation in the program, though officials did say high earners will have their benefit capped.
7. Currently, out of 185 countries surveyed by the United Nations, the U.S. stands out as one of only two countries to not mandate paid maternity leave. The other country is Papua New Guinea.
8. Today, nearly one fourth of American women are back at work just 10 days after giving birth, which can have negative (and costly) effects on both mother and child. Mandatory paid maternity and paternity leave would prevent that.
9. Even still, six weeks is on the skimpier side of international paid leave policies. For comparison, mothers in Finland can start their maternity leave seven weeks prior to their due date, and that’s on top of 16 additional weeks of paid leave post-birth. The country also offers eight weeks of paid paternity leave.
10. As of the budget's release on Tuesday (May 23), paid parental leave policy is one of only four areas Trump seeks to allocate increased spending to. The other areas are: discretionary defense spending at $469 billion; infrastructure investment at $200 billion; and a Veterans Choice Program, which would enable veterans to seek care at private hospitals outside of the Veteran Affairs System, at $29 billion. All other components detailed in the budget are subject to massive spending cuts, including Medicaid and the Environmental Protection Agency.
11. Many sources, including some conservative politicans, seem to be in agreement that the budget won't be approved by Congress in its current form.
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