As announced recently, President Biden has included paid family and medical leave in the American Families Plan. Additionally, Rep. Richard Neal (D-MA) has introduced a similarly generous and inclusive paid family and medical leave bill. Both proposals raise the possibility that working fathers in any state will be able to take paid leave when they have a new infant.
Numerous studies have shown that fathers’ involvement early on in a child’s life greatly benefits children’s development. Paid parental leave allows fathers to increase engagement with children, which is associated with higher educational outcomes for children and improved socio-emotional health. A study on California’s paid leave policy shows that paid parental leave reduces food insecurity and child poverty and results in better child health outcomes.
Paternity leave also greatly benefits parents who do not share the same household. When nonresident fathers have access to paternity leave, they are more likely to be involved in their child’s life and have a trusting relationship with their parenting partner.
Importantly, paternity leave has a host of benefits for mothers. When fathers are at home longer through paternity leave, they are able to share more of the childcare duties with mothers and typically continue to share childcare responsibilities as the child gets older. As a result, women have more time to pursue necessary health care, improving women’s postpartum health outcomes, and more opportunities to further their careers and gain higher wages, increasing women’s labor force participation rate.
But paid leave only increases equity when the program gives equal benefits. Nationwide, only around 14 percent of workplaces offer paid paternity leave to all employees, many of which are white-collar firms with highly paid workers.
Without a national gender-neutral paid family leave policy, employers can implement policies that discriminate against fathers, mothers, gender nonconforming families, and adoptive families. For example, some employers have primary caregiver policies, where if a parent cannot prove they are the primary caregiver, they are denied long-term paid parental leave. Some of these policies go as far as to say only birth mothers are considered the primary caregiver. As a result, the ACLU has deemed primary caregiver policies discriminatory toward men.
As it stands, family leave too often is a liability for workers. Fathers are deterred from taking leave because doing so increases the risk of being demoted, receiving poor evaluations and lower wages, or losing their job entirely. If there is equal participation in paid family leave, employers could no longer penalize anyone who takes time to care for their families.
Currently, the United States is the only OECD country without national paid family leave. While nine states plus the District of Columbia have enacted paid family leave programs, around two-thirds of the U.S. population still live in a state without paid family leave policies. Further, only 20 percent of private-sector workers have access to paid family leave, which disproportionately benefits high-earning workers. Only 8 percent of workers in the bottom wage quartile have access to paid family leave.
One state-level paid leave program that has had success increasing equity in bonding leave is in California. Starting in 2004, California has offered six weeks of paid bonding leave to both mothers and fathers. This policy has enabled the amount and share of men taking time off to bond with their newborn to increase by a dramatic 25 percentage points between 2004 (when men only made up about 14 percent of the more than 66,000 bonding claims) and 2019 (when men made up about 39 percent of the more than 255,000 claims).
Although a national policy is a great way to increase fathers’ participation in paid paternal leave, there are additional measures that can be made to ensure equal participation. For example, in Sweden, when men were not taking advantage of paid parental leave, incentives were introduced to encourage them to utilize benefits by taking away leave benefits from families if mothers were the only ones leaving their jobs.
A national paid family leave plan promotes equitable participation in paid family leave and would mitigate the disparities and barriers that discourage fathers from taking paternity leave.