As more and more mothers work outside the home, a growing number of fathers are sharing — and in some cases taking over — child care duties. Many speak of the joy they feel spending time with their children, partly because in some cases their own fathers didn't have time to spend with them when they were growing up.
Rob Lott is one of these hands-on dads. When his daughter, Shulie, was born last July, he and his wife, Jessica, looked forward to spending time with her.
Jessica's employer offered her just four weeks of paid parental leave and Rob's employer offered none. "So for us personally it would have created an entirely different situation for the first few months of her life if we could have had as much time as we really felt like we needed to care for her," Jessica said.
Rob felt fortunate that he had managed to accrue sick time and vacation time, though he noted that neither is the same as family or paternity leave. "Certainly, having a child is not vacation, nor is it a sickness,” he remarked wryly.
“Fortunately, I was able to cobble the time together, and I was able to take two weeks — which was not enough," he said. "We made it enough, but I really wish I could have been home longer with Jess as she was recovering, and with Shulie when she was just weeks old.”
Many U.S. families experience that same regret, because the United States is the only developed country that does not mandate paid parental leave for its citizens. That means working parents like the Lotts must make arrangements for time off directly with their employers, or use their vacation and sick leave hours.
D.C. paid leave bill
But a few states have taken the lead in implementing paid leave policies, including California, New Jersey and Rhode Island. New York just got on board, and in Washington, D.C., a paid family leave bill, the Universal Paid Leave Act, is now going through the legislative process. It would allow up to 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave, funded by contributions from every employer.
Joanna Blotner, campaign manager for the D.C. Paid Family Leave campaign, said the bill covers all businesses, including small businesses and self-employed people working in Washington. One of the unique features of the insurance model system, she noted, is that it poses the smallest financial burden on small businesses because costs are spread out across the entire workforce.
Nothing in the bill, however, requires a business with fewer than 20 employees to hold someone's job while on leave. That employee will still be paid for time on leave, but it will be up to each employer to decide whether to hold the job.
Jessica Lott has been actively involved in the campaign to get the bill passed. She was among a group of advocates led by Blotner who recently met with D.C. Councilman Charles Allen, a co-sponsor of the legislation.
Allen listened patiently as his constituents shared their stories around a conference table in his office. As a father of a young child himself, he was sympathetic.
"We know that families will be stronger when you have this [bill]," he told them. "The connection you get to have with your kid, that just makes a stronger family. It sets the parent up for greater success; it sets the child up for greater success." And "no amount of arguing," he added, "can convince me otherwise."
“I think paid family leave is a really important issue for our city, and it certainly is for our country," he told VOA. "I think that when an employer provides paid family leave, I think that they become a stronger employer and a more attractive place to work.”
Crunching the numbers
"The way that it would work is that businesses would contribute an additional 1 percent of the salary of their employees," Jessica said. "And then that 1 percent would create a pool that the government would administer to pay for the people who need to take leave.”
But that would not be enough, argued Marc Freedman, executive director of labor law policy for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
“That 1 percent surtax is not expected to be adequate to cover the full administration of the program plus the providing of benefits to these employees as they would be requested," he said. "At this point, it is tailored exclusively as a burden on employers. Employees would have no contribution into that pool, and at the very least we think that's an unbalanced approach.”
On the federal level, the business advocacy organization has typically opposed legislation that mandates a new type of leave on employers. "Our feeling is that employers provide leave as they are able to provide leave," Freedman said. "Many do so happily, and if they can't afford it, then that's generally why they don't provide it.”
U.S. Representative Loretta Sanchez is from California, one of several states that require paid paternity leave.
“I've been a small-business owner before, and it is a leap for one to have a key member leave for a while and to have to pay them," the Democratic congresswoman told VOA. "Small businesses, especially startups, are really having a hard time, sometimes, meeting payrolls.
"But anything that we could do to help ensure that small businesses have a continuity of the business they’re in, and yet have an opportunity to have their employees take some time to take care of a loved one, would be something I'd be interested in," she added.
When asked about an acceptable compromise, Freedman said that while he didn't have "the ideal sweet spot plan to offer" at the moment, "I could tell you that in various ways, it would have to be structured as an incentive instead of a mandate.
"There should be some way that employers can put in place a system of leave that meets some description, but they can do it with flexibility on their end.”
Leading on leave
However it's designed, advocates like Rob and Jessica Lott will continue to push for paid parental leave for all U.S. citizens.
“The goal is to have this city lead on leave," Rob said, "and to really represent a model of what's possible.
"And certainly, the more cities and states that implement laws like this, it certainly can create momentum and really provide the evidence to our federal lawmakers that it can work and that it can really pay off for everyone.”