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Honoring Dads with a Real Solution: Paid Family Leave

If you ask my uncle – father of a five and a two-year-old – what he wishes he had more of, the answer would be time and sleep. My uncle works graveyard shifts; he is asleep when most of us are at work or school, and he leaves for work when many of us are heading home after a long day. Our family rarely hears him come home in the early hours of the morning, but Emily, his youngest child, habitually wakes up to listen for the familiar sound of her dad’s shoes.

This time of the year, I want to honor my uncle and the millions of dads who take on the hardest job of being a working parent. With 70 percent of mothers in the labor force, the roles and responsibilities of fathers have also shifted in today’s families. According to a report from the White House Summit on Working Families, one in five fathers are now primary caregivers to young children while the mother is working. The amount of time that fathers spend on child care and housework has more than doubled since 1965, and the majority of fathers in dual-income households report having work-family conflicts.

Unfortunately American policy has failed to keep pace with the shifting roles of fathers. More than ever, working parents need the tools and supports to balance the demands of work and caring for their family. Yet America lags behind many other countries in providing one of the most basic supports for families: the right to take paid family leave.

Paid family leave enables workers to take paid time off to bond with a new child or to care for an ill family member. When a father (or any individual) needs to take time off for those reasons in the United States, he must either take unpaid time off (through the federal Family and Medical Leave Act), or rely on employer-provided benefits such as paid vacation days and paid sick days.

Only three states (California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island) have implemented paid family leave, and the impact on workers and businesses has been overwhelmingly positive. In other words: business went on as usual (and even benefitted). Yet as it stands, just 11 percent of workers in America have access to paid family leave.

My uncle has been fortunate to access California’s Paid Family Leave program, which allows eligible individuals to receive about 55 percent of their weekly wages for up to 6 weeks. He took paid leave for two important events in his life: when his daughter was born and when his wife unexpectedly fell ill a few years later. In the few weeks that he took to bond with Emily, my uncle got to experience what most parents cherish – more time with his children, and more sleep. Accessing paid family leave helped my uncle to fulfill and balance his roles as a working parent, a father, and a partner.

Although there remains some serious work to do to support working parents in America, the trend of fathers taking leave in California is headed in a positive direction: the number of men who apply for paid family leave has more than doubled since 2004, and a greater number of men are taking leave to bond with their child. Paid leave also benefits more than the fathers who take it; it provides vital economic security to families and supports women in the workforce. But today, millions of fathers and their families nationwide are still waiting for a solution, and that needs to start with a basic right to take paid leave.

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