Tuesday, April 27, 2010
Fair Parental Leave for Men

The United States has one of the stingiest parental leave policies in the world, so for Massachusetts to be slightly more strict than the federal government is really a baby step toward balancing work and family. Yet Massachusetts lags behind the nation in one respect: its treatment of fathers.
Right now, the state parental leave law applies to many small businesses, whereas the federal law does not. In Massachusetts, employers with as few as six employees must grant eight weeks' unpaid maternity leave. Federal law grants 12 weeks, but only at companies with 50 or more workers.
Unfortunately, the state law applies only to women — birth mothers and adoptive mothers. Unlike federal law, it is not gender-neutral. Fathers, including adoptive fathers, who work at firms of fewer than 50 people have no right to paternity leave.
A bill to correct this injustice has won unanimous support in the state Senate and is now moving to the House. We urge expedited passage of the bill.
In addition to the gender neutrality provision proposed by Sen. Brian A. Joyce (D-Milton), the bill includes a proposal from Sen. Mark C.W. Montigny (D-New Bedford) to protect adoptive parents from unequal treatment. It would require than any benefits employers afford to birth parents, including privileges that go beyond the legal requirements, must also be given to adoptive parents.
Across the globe, at least 163 nations — many of them small and poor — guarantee paid maternity leave. The United States does not.
In a Harvard study earlier this decade that looked at 168 countries, only five had no form of paid maternity leave, according to an Associated Press report. America's policy places it in the company of Australia, Papua New Guinea, Swaziland, and Lesotho, a kingdom whose borders lie entirely within South Africa.
While Australia's leave is unpaid, it lasts a full year, compared to three months in America.
Why are we different? Perhaps it's the centrality of entrepreneurship to our nation's history, as business owners worried about costs form the primary opposition. Perhaps it's a distaste for the gender inequity of women-only benefits, since nations with paid maternity leave often favor the mother.
Indeed, generous benefits offered only to mothers can serve to cement traditional gender roles. If mothers get paid leave but fathers do not, how many fathers will stay home with the baby?
A 2008 report by the Center for Economic and Policy Research, "Parental Leave Policies in 21 Countries: Assessing Generosity and Gender Equality," discusses that phenomenon in detail.
A number of countries are moving toward policies that grant a combination of paid and unpaid maternity, paternity, and either/or leave, meaning some of the leave can be taken by either parent.
While the United States offers no paid leave, this nation does well on gender equity. The federal Family and Medical Leave Act is gender-neutral.
It's time Massachusetts law lived up to that standard, and the parental leave bill now under consideration in the House would accomplish that.