A recent discussion in an online fathers' forum captured the range of typical stories from American men taking paternity leave. It was started by a father-to-be (let's call him Dave) whose boss responded negatively to his decision to take two weeks off for the birth of his daughter, even though one week was unpaid paternity leave and the other was a week of personal time. Two weeks was a "highly unusual" request from a man, Dave's boss declared. Dave felt the disapproval was threatening enough that he cut his leave down to eight days: five of personal time, two of paternity leave, and the remaining day was a holiday.
Understanding the FMLA
Given the structure of Dave's company, he could have legally requested much more time. The 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) states that people who work for any public agency or for a company with 50 or more employees are entitled to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave within 12 months of the birth or adoption/foster placement of a child in their care. They can also take the leave if they are unable to work due to a "serious health condition" or if they want to take time off to care for an immediate family member with a similarly defined condition.
As with any piece of legislation, the FMLA contains many clarifications and qualifications: witness Section 101 Item 8, which defines the term "person" as having "the same meaning given such term in section 3(a) of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938"—just in case you weren't sure. More illustratively, the FMLA specifies that employees in a company that must offer paternity leave only count towards the 50 required if they work within 75 miles of the company's location and for 20 or more calendar weeks during the year. Also, the prospective leave-taker must have worked for the company for at least 12 months (not necessarily consecutive, but totaling at least 1,250 hours) and must give at least 30 days notice before the leave is to take place "if the need for the leave is foreseeable." To read the FMLA in its entirety, visit the US Department of Labor website at www.dol.gov.
Despite these examples, the FMLA is a comparatively straightforward legal document. Thus the trouble that paternity-leave takers meet with isn't generally caused by misinterpretation; rather, like Dave, these men encounter resistance from bosses and colleagues. Of the five guys who posted responses to Dave's story, two reported similar expressions of disapproval from their employers. One dad-to-be, who works at the same place as his wife, explained that his supervisor was fine with him taking up to the full 12 weeks of unpaid leave, but that his wife's paid maternity leave was only calculated at 40 percent of her salary. Furthermore, she was given papers to sign stating that she would receive no health, dental, or life insurance coverage while on leave.
Some amendments have been made to the FMLA regarding military families. The President signed into law the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2010. The amendments provide that an eligible employee may take FMLA leave for any qualifying exigency arising out of the fact that the employee's spouse, son, daughter, or parent is on (or has been notified of an impending call to) "covered active duty" in the Armed Forces. (Read more about these new military leave provisions.)