Planning Your Paternity Leave

Greg Bellisime gets envious comments when he talks about the five weeks he took off after the birth of his daughter, Beatrice. Even after his time off, he returned to work only three days a week, saving most of his week to care for his wife and daughter.

Bellisime, a 35-year-old inventory manager for Patagonia outdoor clothing company in Ventura, California, wanted to make sure his wife was recuperating after the delivery. “The whole term for her was really rough. She was sick the whole nine months. So that was my main concern, making sure that both of them were okay,” he says. Most of the time, he found himself cuddling up with his newborn daughter. “I wanted to lay on the couch all day long holding her in my arms.”

Patagonia gives its employees, whether they are mothers or fathers, up to eight weeks of paid leave when a child is born or adopted, and most dads who work there gratefully take all of that time off, a company spokeswoman says. But few men are as lucky as Bellisime.

Although it’s commonly accepted for mothers to take time off after a new baby, until recently few fathers have done so. This has changed somewhat since the advent of the Family and Medical Leave Act, a federal law adopted in 1993 that allows all workers to take 12 weeks of unpaid time off to care for a new or adopted child, a sick family member, or to tend to their own illness. (The law covers all government workers as well as private companies with 50 or more employees; 41 million employees across the country are thus excluded from the act.) After the arrival of a new baby, both fathers and mothers covered by the law can take up to four months off work — and know their job will be waiting for them when they return.

Still, relatively few fathers are taking paternity leave. James A. Levine, former director of the Fatherhood Project at the Families and Work Institute and author of New Strategies for Balancing Work and Family, says many fathers don’t take paternity leave or shorten their time off to only a few weeks. Many fear that taking a formal leave will damage their careers or that they’ll lose too much pay. Instead, they take a kind of “underground leave,” combining paid vacation, sick days, and informal discretionary days off to spend with their families.

Dan Fost, 37, a business columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, took six months of unpaid paternity leave beginning in December 1999 to be at home with his son, Harry. In fact, his leave lasted longer than his wife’s, who had to return to work after about two months.

“One day (Harry) flipped over for the first time. He did it six times, and I was very excited. I videotaped it. It was really fun to watch. He would just sit up on the floor and wham! He’d be on his back,” he says. “My wife was disappointed that she missed it.”

Matthew Ely of northern California also took an informal paternity leave after the birth of his son, Ethan. At the time, Ely was working as a network administrator for the state transportation department’s service contracts division, and his wife took six months off after the delivery to care for their child. But after her leave ran out, Ely took four weeks of paid vacation and two weeks of unpaid paternity leave to get six weeks off. That time with his son was well worth the lost pay, he says.

“My six weeks at home gave me time to hang out with my son and at the same time, help my wife with her transition back to work,” Ely recalls.

Fortunately, many private companies strive to create father-friendly workplaces. They recognize that giving workers time off to tend to the birth of a child or a serious illness in the family keeps employees productive and promotes loyalty. Some private companies even pay workers during the time they take off for paternity leave.

At Lotus Development, fathers receive four weeks of paid leave. First Union Corp. offers two weeks of paid leave.

And some states have adopted family leave regulations that are considerably more liberal than the federal Family and Medical Leave Act. Oregon’s family leave policy, for example, covers businesses with 25 or more employees, covering nearly 190,000 more Oregonians than would be covered under the federal law. The District of Columbia’s policy covers workers in businesses who pay for services in the District, and Vermont allows employees in a company with 10 or more workers to take a leave when they have or adopt a child.

The move for boosting paid family leave, however, took a blow in 2003 when the Bush Administration repealed a Department of Labor provision known as “Baby UI” that would have allowed states to use unemployment insurance funds to finance paid family leave. Some states, however, like California, have still found ways to offer paid family leave. California’s paid family leave law went into effect in 2004 and allows male and female employees to receive up to 55 percent of their salary for six weeks while they care for a seriously ill relative, domestic partner or bond with a newborn or adopted child. It is financed by a .08 percent increase in state disability insurance contributions from employee paychecks.

Paving the way

If you’re expecting the arrival of a child, you’d do well to investigate what your firm offers in the way of paid leave months before it happens. Some employers are willing to negotiate some sort of time off, even if they don’t offer paid leaves. Look at the firm’s policies on parental leave and personal leave because paternity leave may fall under either of these programs. If you have a union, ask your representative what type of absence the leave covers. Don’t feel that you have to go strictly by the book: Ask other employees whether they were able to negotiate a leave that was more flexible than those outlined in a formal policy.

If you take time off because your wife or baby is sick, you don’t have to give detailed personal information about the nature of the illness or reason for the absence. However, your employer may request more medical information from your doctor, such as when the illness first occurred and how long it’s expected to last.

Giving advance notice

Although federal guidelines require you to give only 30 days notice before you go on leave, it’s best to notify your boss months in advance so that he or she can prepare for your absence. You may want to inform your employer just after the end of your wife’s first trimester, when the chances of miscarriage are lower, or after you get the results of an amniocentesis.

If you’re adopting, talk to your supervisor in the early stages of the process. Federal family leave guidelines allow you to take time off to complete a home study or to complete other legal requirements before the adoption is final, as long as you haven’t used up your annual 12 weeks of family/medical leave.

Ely began “testing the waters” with his manager early on in his wife’s pregnancy of his intention to take paternity leave. “I had to reassure them that that things would be taken care of and that I wouldn’t leave them in the lurch.” “Luckily,” says Ely, “I had a good rapport with my manager and she knew she could trust me.”

Pace your leave

Not all fathers want to take their leave in one block. If you think you might want to spread out your time off across several months or until your spouse’s leave ends, the law gives you the ability to do so.

In his book Working Fathers, Levine describes one dad who chose to take every Friday off for five months. Ely waited until his wife’s maternity leave ended to take time off to care for the child. Or, a new father may choose to take a few days off after the birth of the baby and take the rest of his leave at a later time date.

There’s one important exception: If you and your spouse work for the same company, your employer may limit you from each taking 12 weeks off. Instead, you may be asked to take a combined 12 weeks of leave during any 12-month period.

If you do return to work, you may want to combine your unpaid leave with a flexible work schedule. ATT, for example, provides up to 12 months of unpaid leave. It also created an official “ease-in” policy called the “Gradual Return to Work” program, which allows parents to work part-time for three months.

Staying in touch

You’ll probably be very busy during your leave, but it’s important that your employer knows that you’re still in the loop and that you can be contacted in an emergency.

While on leave, Ely used a computer he brought home from work to keep tabs on his company’s network a few times a week. Bellisime, the inventory manager at Patagonia, made sure he called in every once in a while to make sure everything was going smoothly in his absence.

It’s also a good idea to check on your status when you return. Your employer must give you the same job you held before leaving or a position that has equivalent benefits, pay, working conditions, and seniority. Check on insurance as well: Employers must continue to pay for your group health insurance while you’re gone, but they have no obligation to provide any other benefits, such as life insurance.

When a leave is rejected

Even if you know you’re eligible to take a leave, your company may decide to deny your request anyway. If that’s the case, you may want to appeal the decision.

Levine, the author of Working Fathers, suggests appealing to your boss’s manager or to your human resources department. But before going over your supervisor’s head, he says, communicate your intent and provide information the company needs to process your paperwork, such as a letter stating your intent to take a leave and any medical certification to prove you need time off.

You may want to write a letter simply stating your rights: “It is my understanding that according to [the Family and Medical Leave Act or the state or firm’s leave policy], I am entitled to [number of weeks] leave at the adoption or birth of a child or to care for a family member who is ill. My supervisor seems to have a different understanding. I would like your help in clarifying and resolving this situation.”

Make sure you keep your letter focused on the letter of the law or individual company’s policy. You don’t want to antagonize your boss. After all, you may need his or her support when you return from paternity leave.

If you are not allowed to take a leave or your firm fails to reinstate you in your old job when you come back, you may have a good case to file a complaint with the US Department of Labor’s wage and hour division. If you’ve checked the Family and Medical Leave Act, you may want to make your complaints to the state or find your own legal adviser. First, give your employer a copy of the National Partnership for Women and Families fact sheet on the Family and Medical Leave Act. (You can find it on their Web site:

Some workers who still feel they’ve been treated unfairly may want to consult an attorney who’s familiar with family leave issues. If you do decide to sue, and you win, you’re entitled to get your job back and up to double your back wages and benefits. Your compensation may also include your legal fees and costs. But many cases can be worked out in an amicable manner without legal action.

One exception to the family leave law applies only to the highest-paid employees at a company, or those in the top 10 percent income bracket. Companies that prove in advance that a worker’s absence would do economic harm to the firm may not be required to offer the returning employee his or her job back, nor are they required to offer you a similar position. Make sure that if your company adopts this stance, they put it in writing before you leave: It may make a difference in how long you decide to be gone.

Enjoy your leave

Bellisime says he wasn’t surprised that when his new baby arrived, he wanted to spend all his time with her. Now he sees her every day at Patagonia’s childcare center. “I never thought that I would have kids. I never even thought I would get married. But (the birth) was such a wonderful thing,” he says. “This is our first child. I just didn’t want to miss a thing.”

Meanwhile, Fost says his time off has come with some sacrifices. He missed some big stories at the Chronicle in March when the economy began its downturn. And he had to continue writing his weekly column during the time he was off. He returned to work in June 2000, but works only three days a week.

“Sometimes I feel like one of those baseball players who takes less pay to play for the hometown team. But would I rather be at, say, Red Herring writing about some geeky technology company or going to Gymboree to play with Harry?” he says. “I don’t have any real regrets about it. I love what I’m doing.”

Further Resources

Family and Medical Leave Act

U.S. Department of Labor Wage and Hour Division
200 Constitution Avenue, N.W. Washington, D.C. 20210
800-959-FMLA or 202-219-8305

National Partnership for Women and Families
This group wrote the first draft of the Family and Medical Leave Act and led the nine-year fight for its passage, is a non-profit organization that uses public education and advocacy to promote fairness in the fairness in the workplace quality health care, and policies that help women and men meet the dual demands of work and family.

Families and Work Institute
This group addresses the changing nature of work and family life. Members are committed to finding research-based strategies that foster mutually supportive connections among workplaces, families and communities.


Levine, James A. and Pittinsky, Todd L. Working Fathers: New Strategies for Balancing Work and Family. Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, Inc., 1997. (James A. Levine, Ed.D., is Director of the Fatherhood Project at the Families and Work Institute)

National Partnership for Women and Families. “FMLA Q and A.”

Department of Labor. Birth and Adoption-Unemployment Compensation.

Families and Work Institute. Past Projects.

Department of Labor. Federal vs. the District of Columbia Family and Medical Leave Laws.

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