When Men Take Paternity Leave, the Economy Benefits
(Bloomberg) -- Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg took paternity leave and, while he nested, the critics feasted.
“Loser” and “a little weird”" were among the more printable reactions after he and his husband, Chasten, took their twins home. The onslaught neatly encapsulated the stigma that’s kept some working fathers from taking advantage of such family policies, despite the social and economic benefits.
“Isn’t that supposed to be for the person who gave birth?” commentator and television host Joe Rogan asked during his Tuesday podcast, before declaring that it was strange for parents to get maternity and paternity leave simultaneously.
Buttigieg, who adopted Penelope Rose and Joseph August this year and announced his leave in August, said in an interview with ABC News that some good came of the criticism, because it started a conversation.
“We’re almost the only country left in the world that doesn't have some kind of policy … and when parents take that parental leave, they need to be supported,” he said. “If there’s this idea that maybe men have access to paternity leave but it’s frowned on if they actually use it … that carries with it this assumption that the woman’s going to do all the work.”
The conversation over men’s familial roles is unfolding as Democrats in Congress abandon a proposal for paid family leave in order to get President Joe Biden’s $1.75 trillion economic plan over the line. Republicans are united in opposition to the plan, and two moderate Democratic senators, Joe Manchin and Krysten Sinema, have raised doubts about framework’s overall cost. The U.S. is one of seven countries in the world that don’t mandate paid leave for new mothers.
The pandemic put the struggles of working parents at center stage. A child-care shortage has kept women in particular from rejoining the workforce and is dragging on job growth. Between February 2020 and February 2021, more than 2.3 million women left the workforce, bringing their participation rate to 57% — lower than at any time since 1988, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
As of March, only 23% of workers are eligible for paid family leave, according to the agency. Less than 20% of men in the U.S. get any amount of employer-provided paid paternity leave.
While more men are taking advantage of parental leave when it’s available, the criticism that erupted over Buttigieg is a reminder that a stigma still exists. Only 62% of men take the full amount of leave for which they are eligible compared with 93% of women, according to a 2019 study by the Boston College Center for Work and Family. Some men take only part of the time available.
How does paid paternity leave work?
While many countries provide paid leave for both parents after the birth of a child, the U.S. doesn’t, so it varies by state.
Nine states plus the District of Columbia have paid family-leave programs ranging from six to 12 weeks off, according to the Bipartisan Policy Center. Three of those states have yet to implement their programs. While employers in those states must meet minimum requirements, they can always offer more. Federal government workers, meanwhile, qualify for as much as 12 weeks paid leave.
In most states, employers decide how much leave to provide workers. That’s led to inequities, with mostly better-compensated workers getting paid time off.
Unpaid leave is another option. The Family and Medical Leave Act guarantees both men and women 12 weeks of unpaid leave, but eligibility requirements are strict. An employee must have worked at least 1,250 hours during the year before the leave for an organization employing at least 50 people within a 75-mile radius. As much as 40% of the U.S. workforce doesn’t qualify for FMLA protections for parental, family caregiving or medical needs, according to a February 2020 report from the Bipartisan Policy Center.
During the pandemic, some companies increased paid family leave. A survey of 2,504 human-resources professionals by the Society for Human Resource Management found that 44% of respondents said their companies had paid paternity leave in 2020, up from 21% in 2016.
What is the stigma around paternity leave?
Some men who have access to paid leave say they’re reluctant to take it. They worry doing so will damage their reputations, put them at a disadvantage for promotions and affect their earning potential.
A 2016 survey by Deloitte found that men were far more likely to indicate they didn’t plan to use paid parental leave, with one in three saying their jobs could be in jeopardy. Men who take paternity leave tend to lose status in the workplace, with employers questioning their commitments to their jobs if they take too much time off, according to research by Willamette University law professor Keith Cunningham-Parmeter.
Money also figures into leave decisions. Men were more likely take longer leaves if their full salaries weren’t reduced, according to a 2019 paper from the Boston College Center for Work & Family. A study by the center in 2014 found that five out of six employed fathers said they wouldn’t take paternity leave unless at least 70% of their salary was paid.
What are the social and economic impacts of paternity leave?
It’s a positive for the family as a whole. Longer leaves are associated with increased engagement and bonding, which leads to improved health and development outcomes for children, according to a Department of Labor brief.
When fathers take leave, it also helps mothers engage in paid work, driving up their labor-force participation and wages. States with paid-leave policies found a 20% reduction in the number of women leaving jobs in the first year after giving birth — and up to a 50% reduction after five years — according to a 2019 study by the nonprofit Institute for Women's Policy Research. The paper analyzed labor-market participation among women in California and New Jersey before and after each state launched a paid family and medical leave system.
That study also found that over the long term, paid family leave nearly closed the gap in workforce participation between mothers with young children and those without. For women without access, nearly 30% dropped out of the workforce within a year after giving birth and one in five didn’t return for more than a decade.
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