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Guide to Paternity Leave: Your Rights, How to Ask & The Future of Leave

Dads are more engaged than ever, but paternity leave policies are slow to change

Beth Castle
Managing Editor, InHerSight

Young dad and son on his shoulders

Paternity leave is the time a father takes off from work after his child is born or adopted.

According to a study by the Boston College Center for Work & Family, 76 percent of fathers take only one week of leave time (or less!) after the birth or adoption of their child.

Why? For starters, most aren’t getting paid, which we’ll discuss in-depth below. But there are also cultural factors that dissuade men from taking time off to bond with their new children.

Let’s take a look at what paternity leave in the United States means right now, where it’s going, and how it compares to leave policies around the world.

Paternity leave rights in the United States

The United States does not guarantee parental leave to working fathers. The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) is a federal law that protects employees’ jobs while they’re taking a sanctioned leave of absence. FMLA applies to workers at companies with more than 50 employees working within 75 miles of the primary worksite. In order to qualify, you must have worked for the company for at least 12 months.

Some states have laws that extend that leave period to 16 weeks, and others lower the company size requirement to encompass small businesses. Some states and companies lower or remove the 12-month work requirement.

It’s important to note that FMLA does not require dads be paid for their time off. As a result, in the United States, the majority of paternity leave is unpaid because there is no federal mandate for it. The decision to offer paid paternity leave is left up to states and individual companies.

Today, only 9 percent of men work at a company that offers paid leave to every male employee, and only four states require paid leave for fathers. California was the first state to offer paid family leave, giving employees six weeks of partially paid time off. Since then, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and New York have followed suit.

Types of paternity leave

Generally, there are three kinds of parental leave, and a company’s paternity leave will fall into one of those categories:

  • Intermittent leave: a one-time leave for something like a doctor’s appointment

  • Reduced-schedule leave: a reduction in hours to accommodate an employee’s need for out-of-office time

  • Block-of-time leave: an extended period out of the office, typically after the birth or adoption of a child (what most people consider parental leave)

Although unpaid, fathers can choose to use as much of their FMLA time as they like after their child’s birth. Given how much of a financial loss that is, though, it’s still much more common for men to use paid time off like vacation or sick days to bond with their newborns.

How to ask your employer for paternity leave

Your child is born and—poof—you get paternity leave, right? Nah. You still have to ask for it. This is the best way to do so:

  • Learn your company policy: We’ve covered FMLA so already, but you’ll want to read up on what your state and your company offer dads specifically before you talk to your boss about your leave.

  • Create a plan: Before you ask to take paternity leave, you’ll want to think through your needs and how to best meet them. You might want a traditional block-of-time leave, or you might want more flexible hours or the option to work from home.

  • Negotiate with your employer: Be prepared to compromise. Unfortunately, some offices are still anti-paternity leave. To get the most bang for your buck, come prepared and ready to meet in the middle somehow.

  • Talk to HR: Even if your request is approved, you might not feel the company’s policy is comprehensive enough. Ask HR how you can request a policy change.

  • Take your paternity leave: A lot of men feel like they can’t take paternity leave because they don’t see other men doing it. Take the time for your family, and other men will feel comfortable doing so, too.

What to do if your employer doesn’t offer paternity leave

Even if your employer doesn’t offer paternity leave, you have a few options.

  • Use FMLA: So long as you work in a company with 50-plus employees and have worked more than 1,250 hours in the last year, you can request to use FMLA. Be sure to give notice at least 30 days in advance.

  • Use PTO or sick days: This is a bummer, but you wouldn’t want to go to Cabo without your new baby anyway, would you?

  • Ask for flexibility: Talk to your boss about adjusting your schedule slightly, giving you the option to work from home some days, leave early or come in late, or have extended hours during the week so you can have an extra day off.

  • Create a support group in your workplace: If time off simply isn’t an option, lean on other dads to help you navigate working parenthood. Formed out of shared experiences, “affinity groups” like these are a great way to get advice and advocate for policy changes.

  • Support an advocacy group: Maybe you have the financial means to take time off and you want to help others, or maybe you’re not a new dad at all but you really believe in the cause. If your office doesn’t offer paternity leave and you feel passionate about it, reach out to an advocacy group like A Better Balance to push for employees’ rights.

Why men don’t take paternity leave

Men take less parental leave than women. We know that’s true. But it’s not because they’re uninterested in parenthood. In fact, data tells us working dads are more engaged with their kids than ever. During the Boston College Center for Work & Family study, three out of four fathers said they wanted to spend more time with their kids, and two out of three believed in a 50-50 caregiving split between spouses.

In that same vein, a recent InHerSight survey of 8,000 women found 73 percent of women believe men and women should be given equal time off and nearly 90 percent support employer-paid maternity leave. Clearly, there’s a want and a need for paid parental leave.

That’s good news from a culture standpoint, but in the office, taking an extended paternity leave, paid or unpaid, goes overwhelmingly unsupported for a variety of reasons: leadership deems it unnecessary, expectations of men to take on more traditionally male roles at home, or few to no examples of other men, especially executives, taking paternity leave.

In recent years, that’s begun to shift. We’ve seen high-profile male execs not only advocate for more leave time, but also take it themselves: Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerburg, for instance, took two months off after the birth of each of his daughters. This practice-what-you-preach attitude does more than gives Zuckerberg some dad time, it shows his employees he supports them doing it too.

In terms of policy, widespread diversity efforts have pushed big companies like Walmart (2.5 stars), Starbucks (3.2 stars), and CVS (2.6 stars) to extend their leave policies to both moms and dads, as has the general attitude toward men’s and women’s roles at home. Those shifts are reflected in the language we use to talk about leave nowadays: More and more, companies are instituting “family” and “parental” leave to be inclusive of fathers and domestic partners.

How the U.S. compares to other countries when it comes to paternity leave

In total, there are 92 countries that don’t have a national policy granting paid paternity leave to new fathers. The U.S. is one of them. We’re also one of only eight countries that doesn’t offer any kind of paid leave to moms or dads. To put that into perspective, other countries in that camp are Papa New Guinea and Suriname.

Some of the most progressive paternity leave policies come out of Asia. In Japan and South Korea, new dads can take up to a year of paid leave, though they rarely take all that time.

Interestingly, you’ll find paid paternity leave policies in countries big and small, established and developing. Their time spans vary without much rhyme or reason: Brazil grants less than three weeks, Mongolia offers 14 weeks, and Rwanda offers four days.

The future of paternity leave

We’ve talked about how culture is making company policy language more inclusive, and thankfully, we’ve seen a lot of large companies begin to adopt parental leave policies that extend rights to dads and domestic partners. Spotify (3.6 stars) now offers six months of paid leave to all new parents, Etsy (4.1 stars) employees (even surrogates) can take 26 weeks of paid parental leave, Twitter (3.8 stars) has a gender-neutral paid leave policy that caps at 20 weeks, and Reddit (3.1 stars) offers four months paid and a flexible return-to-work program. Wonderful!

Generally, it takes laws to see sweeping change. In March 2019, Republican Senators Joni Ernst and Mike Lee proposed to Congress the Child Rearing and Development Leave Empowerment (CRADLE) Act as an option for paid leave. The act would allow workers to access some of their Social Security retirement income early to make for the money they’d lose taking time off from work. So if you took six months off from work, then you’d delay your Social Security retirement by six months. Senator Marco Rubio proposed similar legislation a year earlier.

Read into that what you will. The U.S. is the only industrialized country that does not offer paid parental leave of some kind, and three-fourths of our population believes the federal government needs to mandate it. It’s time to make some changes. In fact, we’re overdue.

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