Labor Department Tackling Barriers to Paternity Leave

By Toni Vranjes

June 25, 2015

It’s an unexpected blog post for a public figure who deals with cold, hard labor statistics.

In a recent post titled “The Best Father’s Day Gift,” Labor Secretary Tom Perez paints a very personal portrait of the fathers who work in the agency – and the very real struggles they face balancing careers and family. And even though Perez has a powerful, high-profile job, he declares that family is his first priority. The reason he wrote the blog post: to highlight the need for better paternity-leave programs.

“Being labor secretary is what I do, but it’s not who I am,” Perez wrote. “I’m a husband and father first. Nothing’s been more important to me than coaching my kids’ basketball teams, volunteering at their school and – when they were younger – being home to tuck them in at night.”

He added: “At the Labor Department, we have many fathers just like me with the same priorities. During the day, they work hard to help create opportunity for working families across America. But when they go home at night, it’s all about their own families. They’re there for the 3 a.m. feedings and diaper changes; for the first words and tentative first steps – those unforgettable moments that sustain a bond that will last a lifetime.”

When their children were born, many of these dads used sick or vacation time to care for their new babies. But too many new fathers in this county are unable to do this, much less take paid family leave, Perez wrote. Emphasizing that most new fathers in the U.S. lack access to paid paternity leave, he noted that the agency has released a new policy brief on the issue. The paper urges state governments and companies to knock down the economic and cultural barriers to paid paternity leave.

Although 90 percent of U.S. dads take time off work to help care for a new child, their leaves are usually quite short, according to data cited in the policy brief. The document states that 70 percent of dads take 10 or fewer days of leave.

Most employees – whether male or female – lack access to any paid parental leave, according to the policy brief. Even when parental leaves are available, there are inequities. In the U.S., more employers provide paid maternity leave than paid paternity leave, according to research cited by the Labor Department.

In addition to economic barriers, cultural stereotypes are another obstacle. “Even where men have access to paid leave, they might still cut their leaves short to avoid being perceived as less dedicated employees,” the paper states.

Those outdated attitudes are unfortunate. Extensive research shows the wide-ranging benefits of paternity leaves, the Labor Department states. Among them: improved bonding between dad and child, fewer health problems for the child, and better work-life balance overall.

“When fathers take paternity leave – especially when they take longer leaves – it can lead to better outcomes for their children and the whole family,” according to the policy brief.

What’s to be done? The Labor Department is calling for expanded leave programs, along with more supportive attitudes. The agency highlights California’s paid family-leave program – implemented in 2004  – as a model. The program has greatly increased the chances that men will take paternity leaves, said the agency, citing a 2012 report from the Rutgers Center for Women and Work. In California, the likelihood of men taking paid paternity leave after a child’s birth increased from 35 percent between 1997 and 2004, to 76 percent between 2005 and 2009, according to the Rutgers report.

California is one of just three states that provide paid family-leave programs. The other two are Rhode Island and New Jersey.

Meanwhile, the agency also wants more businesses to step up to the plate. The Labor Department pointed to major tech companies, like Yahoo, Facebook and Reddit, that offer impressive paid-leave programs for new dads.

The New York Times reported this week that the movement for paid-leave programs is gaining steam, amid widespread public support. Because of politics, though, expect to see the greatest changes at the state and local level, according to the Times article.

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