What it takes for a new dad to actually use paid family leave (hint: incentive)

July 1, 2013 | Aaron Keating

I can say from personal experience that taking family leave was one of the best choices I've ever made.

The author and his daughter.

As a new dad who both received – and used – paid family leave when my daughter was born, I’m a bit of an outlier among my peers. Nationwide, only 11% of U.S. employees have paid family leave from their employers. Even at Fortune 100 companies, where 73.6 percent of firms offer some form of paid leave for mothers, only 32.1% reported offering paid family and medical leave to fathers, according to the U.S. Congressional Joint Economic Committee.

But just receiving paternity leave doesn’t guarantee dad will be bonding with the newest member of the family. A recent study of college professors who received paid family leave found just 12% of fathers actually used their leave, compared to 69 percent of mothers. In California, employees pay a small amount into an insurance pool so they can draw wages while on leave. Moms and dads alike can take up to six weeks at 55% of pay to care for a new baby. Even so, while child-bonding claims made by men have increased steadily, they have also increased somewhat slowly: from 17 percent of claims in 2004, to 26 percent in 2010 and 29 percent in 2011-12.

Economic reality accounts for a big part of that. Half a paycheck is better than nothing, but far short of what most families require to make ends meet. There are also social expectations that pressure men to return to their jobs. What’s interesting is how other countries have changed both of those dynamics for the better. Blogger Duncan Black wrote an October 2012 column for “USA Today” about the prominence of Swedish fathers who cared for their children:

While traveling through Sweden a few years ago, I was struck by the large number of solo fathers pushing their babies in strollers or accompanying their young children in parks and cafes. Inquiry into just why this was the case revealed that this was due, at least in part, to Sweden’s generous and interesting parental leave policy, which gives new parents significant paid leave from work and encourages gender equity in the workplace and at home.

The Swedish government provides a total of 13 months of shared paid leave for parents, paying them 80% of their salaries, up to a limit. However, to make use of the full 13 months, this time must be split between the parents, with each taking at least two months off from work. No one is forced to take time off, but in order to make use of the entire allotment of offered paid leave each parent must use some of the time.

By allowing and encouraging both parents to participate fully in child care responsibilities early on, this policy helps to reduce gender-specific expectations related to the impact of parenting on careers, and reduces stigmas attached to women in the workplace. Primary early parenting duties are less likely to be seen as the sole responsibility of mothers by default, and instead are understood to be a shared responsibility for couples. A career interruption due to childbirth ceases to be something expected only from women.

Sweden isn’t the only place where this has happened, as illustrated in this April 2012 report on paid family leave from the Center for American Progress:

Norway experienced the same pattern after it introduced a paternity quota in 1993 with four weeks of nontransferable paid parental leave available only to men. Before 1993 fewer than 3 percent of fathers took paternity leave, but by 2005 the rates had skyrocketed, with more than 70 percent of fathers taking family leave after the birth of a child.

Strong families are the backbone of strong communities and a strong economy. All but four countries around the world – Lesotho, Swaziland, Papua New Guinea and the United States – have taken that lesson to heart by mandating paid maternity leave, and many offer leave benefits to dads too.

Study after study of young American men finds the newest generation of working fathers wants the same kinds of workplace options for which working mothers have been clamoring for decades. When that finally happens, let’s just remember that just giving dads the option, by itself, may not be quite enough for them to use it.

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Posted in Family Leave Insurance, Work & Family


  1. Kevin Haney says:

    I find it interesting that claims for men have been growing over time. Perhaps it is because there is a recognition lag about the benefit availability.

    There may be a similar recognition lag regarding family leave and unemployment compensation. Twenty four states accepted incentives from the Federal Government to “modernize” unemployment compensation to include job loss associated with a “compelling family reason”. In all twenty four states that definition includes caring for a sick family member.

    In six states the definition includes the workers own disability – which most commonly comes about during a maternity leave that may not be job protected via FMLA.

    There seems to be almost no awareness of these new rules.

  2. Todd Sullivan says:

    I know in my case it’s the overwhelming amount of information that almost had me not taking leave. Firstly, HR professionals hand you a stack of paper that lacks an overall context. Secondly, departments like EDD and other health information professionals bounce terms like CFRA, PFL, FMLA as though they are second nature to you without disclosing how these various legal provisions and benefits interact with each other. As long as your HR department hands you the paperwork, they are fulfilling their obligation under law. They have no legal obligation to make sure you understand all the ramifications and make the best decisions that work for you. I have friends who have taken FMLA and not applied for PFL during the process. I’ve had a friend take PFL for bonding and returned to work to find her job gone – under the mistaken assumption that PFL was part of maternity (after all EDD administers both and they send you an application for PFL once your SDI ends).

    Hearing horror stories like this only made it more intimidating. Once I started digging in, the rules were apparent and really simple. And yet it baffles me why these rules are not presented in a straight forward manner for many individuals. Some information packets bury the part about taking PFL concurrent with CFRA or FMLA in the middle of the packet, and it’s easy to gloss over if you are overwhelmed by all these unfamiliar terms.

    All the average worker wants to know is this: 1) How can I take time off to bond with my child, and 2) how can I receive some percentage of my compensation while doing so without 3) losing my job?

    That’s it. End of story.

    If you are a male, a health professional should explain in simple terms… fill out this paperwork to qualify for CFRA or FMLA, so you can take time off while protecting your job, and don’t forget to apply for PFL so you can receive a percentage of your income while doing so.

    Personally I think the state of California should simplify the process further and guarantee that you have a reasonable expectation to return to your position if you take PFL to bond. In fact, I think all states should enforce the same laws so greedy companies don’t try to relocate to states where they have less legal obligations. Bonding is a necessary time. Heck, I’m more liberal than that. I think the state of California should allow you to have flexible bonding hours so that you can bond with your child up to a year after the birth. By this I mean, employers should make reasonable accommodations for your ability to work part time, so that you can take the rest of the day off to bond. This would help new parents to transition and make arrangements for future child care. For instance, a working couple might have overlapping work schedules. Within the first 12 months of the child’s birth, it might help said couple if one of them were able to leave work at least four hours early, or one were able to go into work four hours later. Those four hours of lost time should be covered by SDI up to 55%, for up to a year. It should be an optional program that leaves the choice up to the individual. You either take this or PFL, but you can’t get both.

    Another option would be to set up a state insurance fund that allows employees to opt in to paying for flexible bonding hours. This would allow couples who plan on having children within a year or two years to may a monthly payment deducted from their paycheck, to cover 55% of their hours adjusted for child bonding for up to a year as mentioned above. States would make it mandatory that companies have to honor flexible bonding hours as long as the said individual pays into it. If the employee does not pay into it, then the company does not have to honor their flexible bonding hours. This also means that it’s not a mandatory program, and only those couples who are consciously planning to have a child would benefit from it.

    So much room for improvement.

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