Although maternity leave for new mothers has become more common in U.S. workplaces than it used to be, fathers don’t always receive the same benefits. Most new fathers aren’t granted any time off — let alone paid time off on the birth or adoption of a child. However, as the labor market tightens, employers are starting to recognize that paternity benefits can help attract and retain employees.
According to Mercer’s Survey on Absence and Disability Management, about 40% of employers now offer paid parental leave for both parents, compared to 25% in 2015.
Here’s what you need to know if your organization is thinking about adding paternity leave to its employee benefit package.
Know Their Rights
Under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), the controlling federal law in this area, there is no nationwide right to receive paternity leave. However, six states and all 20 of the largest U.S. companies mandate some form of paid parental or family leave. Although fathers have no federal right to be paid during paternity leave, the FMLA requires that the employee’s job be protected for up to 12 weeks after the birth or adoption of a child. In other words, the employee is entitled to return to his job without penalty in pay or position. To qualify, the employee must have worked at a company with more than 50 employees and have logged at least 1,250 hours on the job the previous year. Other requirements may apply.
In addition to federal law, workers may have rights under state law. As of this writing, 25 states supplement FMLA protection by either providing longer leave time (for example, 16 weeks), lowering the minimum employer size or even requiring private employers to pay for a leave, up to a dollar cap. Six states — California, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York and Washington — plus the District of Columbia, have passed family leave legislation that extends paternity leave rights to fathers.
Typically, employers providing leave to a birth father offer the same or similar benefits to fathers adopting a child. The FMLA states that employees may take 12 weeks of unpaid leave for an adoption and some individual states offer time off to adoptees under the umbrella of family leave (which can also include leave to care for sick children or elderly relatives).
Decide on the Details
If you’re thinking about making paternity leave benefits available to employees, discuss your intentions with legal and financial advisors. Although some companies offer unofficial benefits on a per-employee basis, you’re generally better off putting everything — including whether paternity leave is paid or unpaid — in writing. This includes updating employee handbooks and new employee orientation materials.
Most employers that offer paid paternity leave continue to cover full-time employee benefits such as health and life insurance during the leave period. However, you may want to reserve the right to be reimbursed for insurance premiums if the employee doesn’t return to work when the paternity leave period ends.
Employers typically suspend the employee’s right to other benefits temporarily — including their ability to:
- Accrue seniority benefits,
- Earn vacation and sick time, and
- Receive 401(k) matching contributions or advance the vesting schedule.
And, of course, employees on parental leave can’t contribute to their 401(k) on a pre-tax basis because they aren’t receiving a paycheck.
Handle Leave Requests
Under the FMLA, employees working for employers that offer paternity leave must make a leave request at least 30 days in advance. The employee can take the leave any time during the spouse’s pregnancy or within one year of the child’s birth. It’s important to stress that this decision is made by the employee — not the employer — and usually is influenced by such personal factors as the employee’s finances and the mother’s health during pregnancy.
An employer can require the employee to use up vacation, personal or sick days before being taking official FMLA leave. However, in many organizations, the employer and employee discuss and negotiate these issues to arrive at a mutually agreeable decision.
Pressure Is Growing
Smaller employers aren’t covered by the FMLA, and even large employers aren’t required to offer family leave benefits to part-time employees. But you may want to consider offering paid paternity leave anyway — particularly if you already offer maternity leave. Pressure is growing on lawmakers to address the issue and legislation could require more from employers in the future. In the meantime, offering paternity leave can give your organization an edge in the search for new talent.