My wife will soon have a baby. How can I convince my company to improve their paternity leave policy?

  • Author: Lynne Curry
    | Alaska Workplace
  • Updated: September 10, 2018
  • Published September 10, 2018

Q: Three years ago, when I talked my wife into getting pregnant, we agreed I'd be a house husband. Her baby is due in five weeks, and I've applied for parental leave. Our company offers new mothers six weeks of paid maternity leave, but only offers new fathers one week of paid paternity leave. This doesn't seem fair, and my wife and I could really use the other five weeks of pay. Can you help me write a short memo requesting more leave? Or is there something else I need to do?

A: According to the Alaska State Commission for Human Right's Chief of Enforcement Sarah Monkton, "Federal and state laws prohibit discrimination in employment because of sex. Under these laws, an employee who is a new father would be entitled to the same amount of leave for child care and parent-child bonding that the employer offers new mothers. If the employer offers additional time off for mothers, it must be tied to medical leave relating to pregnancy or childbirth. Employers need to ensure that their written policy distinguishes between leave that is related to pregnancy and childbirth and leave that is intended to allow time for child care or parent-child bonding."

Many employers, operating according to maternity leave policies written only from the standpoint of new mothers, find themselves surprised that new fathers have the right to equivalent amounts of parental leave for bonding with a new baby. In July, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission announced that Estée Lauder settled a class lawsuit by paying $1.1 million to 210 men who claimed sex discrimination under the company's paid parental leave policy. The lawsuit alleged that the policy favored women over men in that it granted women six weeks of paid leave for child bonding, after medical leave for pregnancy. New fathers, however, could only claim two weeks of paid time off to bond with new children.

A similar discrimination charge against J.P. Morgan came before the EEOC in 2017 in the form of a class action claim filed by the Americans with Civil Liberties Union. Their massive claim asserted that the financial services firm discriminated against men by designating biological mothers as the baby's default primary caregiver, eligible for 16 weeks of paid parental leave, yet limiting fathers to two weeks of paid parental leave.

Meanwhile, an Eighth Circuit Court ruling in Johnson v. University of Iowa provides insight into how other courts might rule. According to the court, "If the leave given to biological mothers is granted due to the physical trauma they sustain giving birth, then it is conferred for a valid reason wholly separate from gender. If the leave is instead designed to provide time to care for, and bond with, a newborn, then there is no legitimate reason for biological fathers to be denied the same benefit."

Your next step? Ask to meet with your HR officer or your company's senior manager and give them your request and the above information. For your employer, this article lets them know that if they've created a parental leave policy, they need to outline the leave's purpose. If they intend a mix of allowing those who give birth time to recover along with time to bond with their new baby or child, their policy needs to allow new fathers and adoptive parents equal amounts of bonding time.

Finally, your email raised an ethical question for me. You said you plan on being a house husband. Are you looking for leave and plan to return to work, or do you seek a cash bonus toward starting your house-husband career?