What Are the Laws Around Paternity Leave and Family Leave in the U.S.?

America doesn’t make it easy for new dads as far as paternity leave is concerned. While 92 countries offer paternity leave, the United States does not. Despite popular support for family leave bills in America, only a handful of states and cities have passed family leave and paternity leave laws, and a Pew Research study from 2016 found the U.S. dead last among 41 countries for parental leave laws. The lack of paid time off for new parents hurts children, families, and society as a whole.


READ MORE: The Fatherly Guide to Parental and Paternity Leave

“Overall, the states and federal have not done nearly enough to provide the supports that working parents need — including working dads,” said Sarah Fleisch Fink, Director of Workplace Policy Nationally at the National Partnership for Women & Families.

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But the U.S. does have several laws in place for paid parental and family leave.

ALSO: As Men Do More Unpaid Work, Policies Lag Behind

State and Federal Paternity Leave Laws

Five states currently mandate paid parental leave. New York State, California, New Jersey, New Hampshire, and Washington, D.C. now have laws in place requiring employers to provide paid leave to employees. Fathers living in the rest of America only get paid leave if their employers offer it.


The only federal protection for American dads comes courtesy of 1993’s Family and Medical Leave Act. Under the FMLA, most new parents can take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave without the threat of job loss. That’s most, not all parents. Employees qualify for parental leave under the FMLA when they’ve worked 1,240 hours over 12 months at a company that employs more than 50 people. With part-time workers and small business employees left in the lurch, only about 60 percent of American workers are entitled to leave under the FMLA.

The FMLA, however, does not require your employer to pay you while you’re home with your kid. So even if you’re legally entitled to take leave, you might not be able to afford it.

RELATED: The Surprising Ways Taking Paternity Leave Helps Your Spouse

Paternity Leave Laws By State

In 2002, California passed the first paid leave parental leave law in America. When the law went into place in 2004, new parents received 55 percent of their wages for up to six weeks. In 2018, the percentage was increased to 60 or 70 percent of their income and may rise again in 2021. New Jersey passed a paid family leave law in 2008 and started paying benefits in 2009. Under the garden state’s program, new parents can receive as much as two-thirds of their wages for up to six weeks of family leave.


Rhode Island passed a paid family leave or “temporary caregiver insurance” law in 2013, which took effect in January 2014. Rhode Island’s law provides four weeks of wage replacement at up to about 60 percent of the employee’s usual wages.

While New York state is late to the paid leave game, it’s coming in hard. The Empire State’s paid leave program has been called the most generous in the country. Parents can take off eight weeks after birth. This year, they receive 50 percent of their wages. The weekly payment increases each year and is scheduled to hit 67 percent of regular wages in 2022. Washington D.C. passed a similar bill this year and parents on leave can receive as much as 90 percent of their regular wages, depending on income.

While Washington State legislators passed a paid leave act in 2007, the law languished for 10 years when lawmakers couldn’t agree about how to fund it. A new bill that included a funding method finally passed last year. The law takes effect in 2020.

City governments in Ohio, North Carolina, and Florida have passed paid parental leave bills for municipal employees. While a paid leave bill for federal employees has been stuck in Congress since 2009, a 2015 executive memo by President Barack Obama allows federal employees to use six weeks of advanced sick leave to care for a newborn child.


Paid leave laws are being considered by state legislatures in Massachusetts, Oregon,  Colorado, Connecticut, and Vermont. Citing support in the state, Fleisch Fink said the Massachusetts bill is the likeliest to pass next.

States fund parental leave in different ways. Generally, workers and employers pay a small fee that pays into an insurance pool used to replace wages. In California, workers pay a less than one percent payroll tax that feeds into an insurance-based pool run through a state agency. When they need paid family or medical leave they apply to that state agency, to the fund for wage replacement.

“They’re not working and they’re not getting their paycheck, but they’re getting some of their wages replaced through a check from the state agency because they’ve paid into that fund,” Fleisch Fink said. “So they’re basically getting their money back.”

What Companies Offer Paternity Leave?

An increasing number of companies offer paid parental leave to parents. Even Walmart, a company with famously toxic labor practices, has started offering family leave for employees.


Some major American companies are starting to view paternity leave as an important benefit for valued employees. Since 2015, for instance, Netflix has allowed working fathers to take unlimited leave during the first year after a child is born or adopted.

But not every company is Netflix. Companies offering progressive paternity leave are the exception, not the rule. According to a 2016 report by the National Partnership for Women & Families, 41 percent of America’s workforce have employers that provide paid paternity leave to some workers and only nine percent of workers work for companies that provide paid paternity leave to all workers. Often, paternity leave is a perk aimed at retaining employees with skills that are in high demand. For lower-income families and individuals, taking leave is far more difficult.

“There are many corporations in the U.S. that have very progressive leave, and we work with them and we support them and of course advocate that corporations and organizations continue to improve their workplaces to become more supportive to parents,” Tim Shand, Global Co-Coordinator of the international fatherhood advocacy group MenCare Campaign, said. “But 95 percent of low-wage workers in the U.S. don’t have the option of taking paid family leave for a new child or even a seriously ill family member.”

For parental leave to apply across the board, the government has to get involved. While both Democrats and Republicans broadly agree on the need for government to tackle paid leave, the form paid leave would take is under considerable debate. Donald Trump advocated for parental leave as a candidate and again in his first State of the Union address as president. Trump’s daughter Ivanka and Florida Senator Marco Rubio proposed a paid leave plan allowing parents to use their Social Security funds to pay for their leave, which critics say ultimately cheats people out of retirement savings more than it helps parents. Meanwhile, Democratic lawmakers New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and Connecticut Representative Rosa DeLauro have spent five years championing a family leave bill that would be funded by small employee and employer payroll contributions.


Without a solution from the federal government, the burden of paid leave has fallen to individual states.  

Stigmas About Paid Parental Leave

Many fathers seem to still need time to warm up to the idea of paternity leave. Only 17 percent of the California parents who took parental leave from when the law first took effect were men. By 2016, fathers made up 37 percent of the California parents who took paid family leave. Meanwhile, New York dads report a stigma about paternity leave that makes some of them reluctant to take time off from work.

The stigma is clearly misguided. As the famed New York businessman Vito Corleone famously said, “a man who doesn’t spend time with his family can never be a real man.” Moreover, your failure to embrace paid paternity leave could be standing in the way of society’s progress. Parental leave advocates like Tim Shand believe paternity leave is the key part of transforming society for the better.


“We see that parental leave is the single biggest policy lever that can shift norms around caregiving and increase dads’ involvement in the lives of their children, for the benefit of families, for children, and for men themselves,” Shand said.

Shand said men who take advantage of paternity leave become more involved in parents. Both with babies and later in life, they become better dads.

“It provides an opportunity for men to be more directly involved in caregiving, particularly at the beginning of the life of their child,” Shand said.

Through embracing paternity leave, fathers help women stay in the workforce. Shifting gender roles around work and caregiving, Shand said, helps create a more just world.


“One of the things that we clearly see is that when women are more able to access the workplace, more equal society, that it leads to greater growth for everyone,” Shand said. “And so part of that unlocking of women’s potential has got benefits for families and for our broader economy, and of course that can create more jobs, and then additional opportunities.”

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