Next Year’s Father’s Day Gift? How About Paternity Leave?

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Father’s Day may have come and gone, but the question of working fathers remains as intractable as ever. This once invisible group (“working father” was pretty much redundant 50 years ago) is now the stuff of cute commercials and rom-coms, but there remains a tremendous disconnect between what we say, as a society, and what we do.

Even in the heyday of traditional gender roles—the “Leave it to Beaver” days—fathers were expected to support their children in ways that went beyond a paycheck. But presiding over the dinner table and having a game of catch are one thing; taking on a real share of day-to-day caregiving is quite another. Back when most middle class mothers didn’t work, parental leave wasn’t considered a necessity, because the only working (middle class) parents were dads, and few would have thought dads needed time off with their youngsters. (I leave the question of low-income moms, who have always worked, and have rarely had access to family-friendly benefits, to another column.)

Interesting, when you stop and think about it, that once women did start entering the workforce in large numbers the sole focus of caregiving leave was on maternity. It was just assumed that when two parents worked, it was the mother who would take time off to care for a new baby.

Not that mothers got the leave they needed, either. It took the 1978 Pregnancy Discrimination Act to ensure that pregnant women were, at least, covered by their employers’ disability policies. (This, of course, addressed only the needs of biological mothers. It seemed to occur to no one that adoptive mothers might need time off, too.)  It took until the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) for U.S. policy to catch up with the reality of fathers and adoptive parents, providing for 12 weeks of unpaid job-guaranteed leave for about 60 percent of employees nationwide. And that was it. Since FMLA—nothing.

A recent study from the Pew Research Center found that 69 percent of Americans agree men need paid paternity leave. But in fact in the U.S. almost no one has paid leave—least of all dads. The United States is shockingly behind other countries in this matter. More than half of countries classified as “high income” by the U.N. have paid paternity leave of 14 weeks or more. Just 29 percent of countries in this grouping have zero paid paternity leave, including, of course, the U.S.

Want to know what paternity leave could be? According to a recent article in Business Insider,  parents in Sweden get 480 days of leave with 80% pay, and 90 of these days are specifically reserved for dads. Ok, I know what you’re saying: “Sweden, right, so what else is new?” Well, how about Lithuania, where fathers get four weeks of leave paid at 100%, after which they can split another 156 days with the mother in any way they like, paid at either 100% for 52 weeks or 70% for 104. Or Estonia, where dads get two weeks paid time off, then can split an additional 435 paid days off with mom.

Certainly not all countries are so forward-thinking. Nonetheless, dads in Australia get 14 days paid leave, those in Belgium get 10, and in Portugal, where up to 20 paid days are available, the initial 10 are compulsory!  And these are all examples from countries classified as “high-income” (like the U.S.). In Bosnia and Herzegovina, located one category down, economically-speaking (“upper middle income”), men get seven days paid paternity leave. In Mauritania, a country that not long ago was shifted from the “low-income” to the “lower middle income” category, men can make use of up to 10 paid days a year for family events. In Tanzania, classified as low-income, men get 3 days of paid paternity leave. And so on.

Of course, where government policies are lacking, employers may try to pick up the slack. In the United States, much has been made lately of the seeming increase in paid leave policies, many of which encompass both men and women (including adoptive parents). But while 96% of Working Mother’s 100 Best Companies in 2016 offer some amount of paid paternity leave, and high-profile companies like Netflix and Etsy offer paid time off rivaling some of the best around the world, a recent study from the Society of Human Resources Management found that overall just 15 percent of U.S. employers offered any paid paternity leave, a statistically-insignificant increase of 1 percent from 2012.

How can this be? How can one of the richest countries in the world treat fathers—treat families—with such contempt? We currently have more than 11 months until Father’s Day 2018.  Isn’t it time to start planning a gift that Dad can really use?

 

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