By Laura Kiesel
NEW YORK (MainStreet) — In January, Massachusetts passed a new law mandating that men in the state are entitled to eight weeks of unpaid paternity leave. The law, which is set to go into effect in early April, essentially renders the existing maternity leave policy in Massachusetts gender-neutral.
The bill passed unanimously in the state Senate and by a voice vote in the House and was signed by Governor Deval Patrick the day before he left office.
"It was updating the law to the 21st century to say it should be a parental leave act, not a maternity leave act," Monica Halas, an employment lawyer at Greater Boston Legal Services, which advocated for the change, toldBoston.com.
The law is another in the latest to be passed in the Commonwealth to advance worker’s benefits with regard to time off. Back in November, Massachusetts residents voted by ballot to extend unpaid sick leave to all private employees.
Under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, which was enacted in 1993, new mothers and fathers are both eligible for up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave when they have a new baby. However, the caveat is that law only applies to businesses with more than 50 employees. By contrast, the Massachusetts law requires eight weeks of unpaid leave, but applies to any business that has six or more employees.
"I think most people think it's good to have two parents, and to give families a chance to bond and work together," said state Sen. Pat Jehlen, a Somerville Democrat who sponsored the bill.
The Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination had previously advised employers to provide paternity leave to their male workers, despite the fact that it was not being mandated by state law, since doing so would be consistent with the Equal Rights Amendment of the Massachusetts Constitution.
Even though men do not need paternity leave for all of the reasons women might -- namely, recovery time from childbirth and any of its potential health complications -- many contend that having time off is still valuable as fathers are often needed for spousal support and bonding time with their newborns.
“My view is that paternity leave really does come in handy, especially in families with older children,” says Dave Fish, a Massachusetts resident and father of three, including an infant daughter. “Being around to help both with the baby and our big kids was great and helped the day-to-day of [our newborn’s] first couple weeks go smoothly.”
The Massachusetts bill was originally sponsored by Boston mayoral candidate Marty Walsh--who has since won the election and succeeded the recently deceased Thomas Menino.
In a statement released to the public, Walsh said: "This is about supporting the well-being of working families and allowing parents to establish their families without worrying about job security."
The bill also had the support of the AFL-CIO, the Coalition for Social Justice and several legal groups.
Some groups, such as the Associated Industries of Massachusetts, worked to secure some protections for businesses in order to curb opposition. Namely, one provision dictated that if two parents work for the same company, they only get eight weeks off altogether instead of eight weeks each.
The United States is the only developed nation that doesn't guarantee paid time off to either parent. Specifically, the U.S. government is the most limited with respect to parental leave when compared to 37 other nations,according to a 2013 study by Pew Research based on data compiled by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).
Another study by the International Labour Organization found that the U.S. was one of only two out of 185 countries in 2014 found not to have public policies for paid maternity leave (the other country was Papua New Guinea). Meanwhile, 78 nations were found to have mandated paternity leave, 70 of which included paid leave. For instance, Canada ensures at least 15 weeks of paid maternity leave and 37 weeks shared between both parents, with some cost-sharing as part of the national employment insurance system.
Here in the U.S., benefits for new parents -- and particularly fathers -- can vary widely by state.
According to a 2012 report by the National Partnership for Women and Families, 14 states have laws that extend beyond what is often federally and offer some amount of mandated leave to both new mothers and new fathers who work in the private sector. In particular, California and New Jersey offer the most in terms of parental leave -- insuring paid leave to both parents. An additional 18 states have laws that only apply to women or to state employees, while another 18 states lack any laws offering new parents workplace supports.
Since more than 60% of U.S. families with children have two working parents, parental leave has become a leading issue of concern and was even mentioned during President Obama’s recent State of the Union address.
Currently, only about 14% of companies in the U.S. offer paid leave--and are virtually restricted to white-collar businesses. Meanwhile, almost half the workers in the U.S. work at smaller companies that are not mandated to offer any leave.
Fish, the Massachusetts father of three, feels fortunate to work for a big-four consulting firm, which recently passed a gender-neutral policy that offers a full six weeks of paid leave per employee (the policy previously allowed for three weeks of paid leave). His wife, on the other hand, did not have any employer-provided maternity leave and was forced to file a disability claim in order to be granted six weeks’ leave.
“For others who might not have the option of paid leave, job security is some comfort, but the fact is that most folks live paycheck-to-paycheck” says Fish. “Some might be able to plan financially in advance of a baby's birth, but what about unforeseen medical costs? I suspect that many dads will need to maintain their income immediately after their babies arrive.”