By Ezera Miller-Walfish*
Looking for a last-minute Father’s Day gift? Wondering how you might show a little extra gratitude today for your dad or the dads in your life? Well, we’ve got an answer for you: tell your Member of Congress to pass President Biden’s American Families Plan so that parents across the country can access a comprehensive paid family and medical leave program to bond with their new child or care for a seriously ill family member.
Currently, the United States is one of the only countries in the world without a paid parental leave policy. On the federal level, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) only provides up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave. The FMLA also excludes 44% of the workforce from job protection given that to qualify, employers must have 50 or more employees within a 75-mile radius and employees need to have worked for their employer at least 12 months and for at least 1,250 hours over the previous year. These requirements create challenges for individuals who involuntarily work part-time and for low-wage workers who are more likely to switch jobs frequently. In addition, while job protection is an important component of a supportive paid family and medical leave program, taking unpaid leave is just not an option for many working families. The increased expenses associated with the birth of a child already push some low-wage families into poverty. This means that many of the 79% of workers in the United States who do not have access to paid family leave struggle to take time to care for their loved ones.
To fill the federal gap, California passed the country’s first Paid Family Leave program in 2002. Since then, a number of states, including Colorado, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Washington, and the District of Columbia have followed suit. The passage and subsequent expansion of California’s Paid Family Leave program has dramatically improved the lives of parents and children in California in a wide array of areas from gender equity, to child development, to parent physical and mental health, to caregiving.
Before California passed the Paid Family Leave program and expanded the California Family Rights Act to cover more employees, many dads risked losing their job or their income if they wanted to take time to bond with a new child or care for a seriously ill family member. For example, Jorge, a busser in a restaurant who earned minimum wage, asked his employer for time off for his baby’s birth. His employer refused. When his newborn baby had health complications and was hospitalized, Jorge had to take time off to help care for her, his wife, and his other child. His employer fired him. At the time, his employer was not covered under California’s job protection law and was therefore not legally required to hold Jorge’s job during leave.
Jorge was distraught. When reflecting on this period of his life, he stated: “My employer’s decision to fire me left my family and me very vulnerable. This was an emotionally, physically, and financially draining experience during an already stressful time in my life. I [was] devastated that I lost my job and I [was] stressed to see how I [would] support my family.”
Neither Jorge, nor any father, should be fired from their job just because they need to take time to care for a seriously ill family member or a new child. They also should not have to struggle with a lack of wages during an already precarious time. Thankfully for workers like Jorge, California recently passed SB 1383, which expanded the California Family Rights Act to cover nearly all employees. California’s continually expanding paid family and medical leave program has thus alleviated many of the burdens associated with taking time off and has allowed more dads to take leave during life’s most critical moments – when a baby is born, when a parent is dying of cancer, or when a spouse suffers a stroke. In order for a federal family and medical leave program to be meaningful, it needs to include job protection so that workers like Jorge are not fired for taking leave and sufficient wage replacement rates to keep families afloat.
A federal leave program should look to California for inspiration. In particular, the program’s impact on father leaving-taking has been significant. Paid Family Leave has increased father-only leave-taking (while the other parent is at work) by 50%. It has also increased the duration of leave taken by fathers. This is important given that in the United States, 72% of fathers take less than 2 weeks of leave. When California’s Paid Family Leave program began, men were only 15% of the workers who took child bonding leave; over a decade later, men were 38% of leave takers for new children. This means that more children have been able to stay in their parents’ care longer, resulting in health benefits for the whole family and lessening the burden on an already-strained childcare system. Father leave-taking has also enabled more moms to stay in their jobs, thereby helping to address gender equity in the workplace. In addition, fathers who take time to bond with a new child are more likely to be involved in the child’s life long-term, and father leave-taking is associated with improved health and developmental outcomes for children. Clearly, when dads can take leave, the whole family benefits.
So, this Father’s Day, let’s show our dads and dads across the United States how grateful we are for them. And let’s ensure that children around the country get to spend crucial bonding time with all parents. Call your Member of Congress and tell them that you support President Biden’s American Families Plan, and that the time for Congress to act is now. In honor of all the incredible dads and soon-to-be dads out there, we urge you to advocate for a comprehensive federal paid family and medical leave program that includes sufficient and equitable wage replacement rates, job protection, and an inclusive definition of family.
*Ezera Miller-Walfish is a law clerk at Legal Aid at Work and a rising third-year law student at U.C. Davis School of Law.