Paternity Leave: Options for Dads-To-Be

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The New Jersey Senate recently approved a measure giving workers up to six weeks' paid family leave to care for a newborn, adopted child, or sick family member. Should Governor John Corzine sign the bill as he's expected to do, the Garden State would join California and Washington as the only states that have legislated paid family leave.

If a working father-to-be doesn't live in one of those states, is he out of luck regarding paternity leave?

Maybe not. A father who would like more family time with a newborn or adopted child can look to three main areas for help: federal law, state law, and his employer.

At the Federal Level

The federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) provides that federal, state, and local governments as well as employers with 50 or more employees must give workers up to 12 weeks of unpaid family leave. The employer also must allow the employee to return to the same or similar job with the same salary, benefits, working conditions, and seniority.

In order to benefit from the FMLA, you must have worked with your employer for at least 12 months and 1250 hours the previous year. One major exception is if you are in the top 10% of your company's wage earners and your absence could mean serious financial harm to your employer; in this case your employer could deny your request and is not required to keep your job open for your return.

Also if both parents work for the same employer, you have a combined total of 12 weeks of parental leave between you.

It is important to note that the FMLA provides only unpaid leave; indeed the National Partnership for Women and Families estimates that only 18% of workers can even take advantage of the unpaid leave provided for in the FMLA.

Remember, though, that under the FMLA, you can also be a bit creative with how you use those 12 weeks—so long as your employer approves of course. You could, for example, try to arrange three or four day work weeks instead of simply being away from work for an extended period of time.

Note that you are required by law to give your employer 30 days notice before you plan on taking leave, but it is probably better to provide even more notice to ensure a smooth transition before and after your time off.

At the State Level

Legislation that provides paid family leave has been passed in three states so far, but as of now, only California's program is up and running; both Washington and New Jersey aim to have theirs funded and running in 2009. Former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer has long been a proponent of paid family leave in his state, but the fate of his proposal is uncertain in light of his resignation.

Of the three states' plans, California's is the most generous, providing six weeks of paid family leave through the state's disability insurance fund, which is funded through employee contributions of $2.25 per month. Workers can receive 55% of their regular salary up to $882 per week.

Washington provides $250 per week for up to five weeks, an amount that is pro-rated for part-time workers; right now the program doesn't have a permanent funding source as the state lacks a general disability insurance fund as in California. Another difference is that Washington provides family leave only in the case of a new child by birth or adoption and not in order to care for sick family members or for oneself.

New Jersey's recently approved plan gives workers 2/3 of their salary, up to $504 per week, for up to six weeks. One leave per 12-month period can be taken in order to care for a newborn, adopted child, or sick family member. New Jersey workers will fund the program through payroll deductions totaling approximately $33 per year per person.

Another option to investigate on the state level is At-Home Infant Care (AHIC), which offers lower-income parents a monthly stipend instead of returning to work or returning to work with the help of a state child care subsidy (eligibility requirements vary widely). The program started in Minnesota and versions have also been tried in New Mexico and Montana, although in Montana there is currently no funding for the program. Vermont, Missouri, and Iowa have considered AHIC legislation but haven't passed any yet.

At the employer level

If your employer isn't covered by any federal or state law, you should check with your human resources department on whether your company has a policy regarding family or paternity leave. Also if you belong to a workers' union, consult with your union representative to determine what options are open to you.

Even if there is no policy or precedent at your workplace, you can also consider presenting an individualized proposal to your employer for time off and/or cutting back your hours. For example, you may think about offering to work overtime before the new child arrives in exchange for fewer regular working hours later or suggest telecommuting if it's feasible in your industry.

Final thoughts

Not sure if you even want to ask for time off? In addition to providing more bonding time with your new child and strengthening family relationships, your leave from work could also have positive effects on the child's health. According to MomsRising, an organization dedicated to building a "more family-friendly America," paid family leave can reduce infant mortality rates by as much as 20%.

Moreover, Progressive States Network, a grass-roots organization that encourages political progress at the state level, notes that when parents must return to work too quickly after the arrival of a new child, newborns are less likely to receive medical checkups, immunizations, or be breastfed, all of which can lead to serious long-term health problems.

If you are interested in learning more about paternity or family leave, in addition to the links provided throughout the article, you can also find more information at the websites of the United States Department of Labor, Families and Work Institute, and National Center for Fathering

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