Valuing fatherhood in the workplace

Nurse

By Sarah Schlehr and Mariko Yoshihara

This Father’s Day, let’s do more than just celebrate our dads with Hallmark cards and backyard barbecues.  Instead, let’s give our dads something they really need – flexible workplace policies.

It can’t be surprising that the increase of women in the workforce, coupled with laws that discourage fathers from taking leave, has created a cascade of domestic stresses.  While women still bear a disproportionate share of the domestic work despite also working outside the home, working fathers now report feeling more work-family conflict than working mothers do.  The irony of this conflict is that fathers are actually prevented from sharing some of the burdens (and joys) of family life because they are saddled by Leave It To Beaver-era parental leave laws.

The good news is, change appears to be on the horizon.  This April, Massachusetts became the first state to require all but the smallest employers to provide fathers with unpaid job-protected leave for the birth of a child.  The law, renamed from the Maternity Leave Act to the Parental Leave Act,  requires businesses with at least six employees to cover dads as well as moms.  The expanded coverage is a much-needed first step in recognizing the universal need for fathers to spend time and bond with their newborn children.

A 2007 study found that fathers who took two or more weeks of leave after a child was born were more likely to perform certain daily child care tasks, like diapering, feeding, and bathing later on.  Fathers who took less than two weeks of leave were no more involved than those who took no leave at all.

Despite the clear benefit of taking time off to bond with a new child, fewer and fewer businesses are offering leave benefits to fathers and research has shown that those who do take leave face a significant stigma in the workplace (let’s not forget the New York Mets baseball player, Daniel Murphy, who was criticized when he took three days off for the birth of his child).

According to a recent study, most fathers only take between one and two weeks off after the birth of a child and the length of time off was closely tied to how much of the leave was paid.  Luckily, California is one of the few states that offer paid leave to parents.  And it’s no surprise that since the program was implemented, the percentage of “bonding leaves” claimed by men has gone up from 18.7 percent in 2005 and 2006 to 31.3 percent in 2012 and 2013.

Unfortunately, many fathers, especially low-income fathers, cannot take advantage of paid leave because their employers are too small to be covered by a law that would provide the new dads with job protection.  Most fathers simply cannot risk losing their job, especially after the birth of a new child.  Leaving aside the lucky Massachusetts dads, the only fathers who can access job-protected leave are those who are covered by the Federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) or a state law corollary.  But these laws leave a lot of fathers out in the cold since they only cover employees who work for companies with 50 or more employees and who have worked there for at least a year.

Incremental change may be on the way in California, where advocates for working dads (and moms) are pushing to increase the boundaries of who is covered by the California Family Rights Act, California’s corollary to the FMLA.  California’s SB 406, the legislation that would amend the law, does not go as far as the Massachusetts parental leave law.  But it does propose to expand leave rights to workers at smaller businesses, by lowering the employee threshold from 50 or more employees to 25 or more.

While SB 406 and the Massachusetts law are certainly steps in the right direction, both still lag far behind what other countries provide for their fathers.  For years, Sweden has had a generous parental leave policy of 16 months that could be shared by the mother and father.  Beginning in 1995, Sweden introduced a “use it or lose it” policy that reserved one month specifically for dads.  This was increased to two months in 2002 and will increase again to 3 months in 2016.  Some countries, like Chile, Portugal, and Italy, go so far as to make paternity leave compulsory, to help ensure that fathers share childcare responsibility with mothers.

It’s time for California and the rest of the United States to catch up and show that the job of parent is at least as important as the jobs parents perform for their employers.

Sarah Schlehr

About Sarah Schlehr

Sarah B. Schlehr is the founder of The Schlehr Law Firm, P.C. Her firm focuses on representing employees who are discriminated against because of pregnancy or for taking a leave of absence. Her firm also represents veterans who have been discriminated against for taking military leave. She is a graduate of Harvard Law School, Brigham Young University, Gerry Spence’s Trial Lawyers College, and the Strauss Institutes’ Program on Mediating the Litigated Case.

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