Skip to main content
Joan C. Williams's picture

The Labor Day op-ed I co-authored with Anne-Marie Slaughter was written before I read a stupendous, and sobering, article by Erin Kelly, a sociologist at University of Minnesota, who is one of the foremost work-family researchers in the country. (All data and quotes in this article are from her study.)

Kelly's 2010 study estimated that only about half of employers who are covered by the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) comply with its parental leave provisions. Given that only 60% of American workers are both covered and eligible for FMLA leave, that means that only about 30% of American employees have access to the (paltry!) twelve-week-unpaid leave offered by the FMLA.

How's that for sobering news? But there's more.

Kelly found that, when it comes to maternity leave, bad-actor employers that failed to comply with other federal laws were more likely to offer no maternity leave than others companies. But, even employers who typically complied with legal mandates often offered leaves much shorter than federal law requires: many offered only six weeks of leave, because that's what was required before passage of the FMLA (in 1993) and they have never updated their policies...nineteen years later.

But the worst news confirms the point made in the op-ed in yesterday's San Francisco Chronicle: that things have changed little, if at all, for men. Kelly found that companies of all sorts often offer illegally short paternity leaves, even companies without a history of blowing off other federal mandates.

Employers offered all kinds of excuses. Someone in a small, high-tech company said they offered no formal paternity leave. When asked if they offered any leave informally, the response was: "I don't think we're run into it. Or we haven't run into it where the fathers wanted any extensive time off. That would have created a problem here because each position that we have here, we don't have a way to cover for someone else." If a dad wanted leave, "we probably wouldn't be able to support that."

Another supervisor was even more explicit. "I don't think the husband needs a leave for having children. I don't know where that came from and I'm not a really strong supporter for that."

At any company, a supervisor recalled telling fathers, "So, we sort of say, 'Please, be with your family. You need to be with your family now."

For three days. "So we felt that three days was more than enough time to take care of the remaining siblings at home, if necessary, while the mom was in the hospital. And one or two more days to be at home with the mom and the new baby, to help her....So, we felt three days was suitable."

Criticism of fathers who sought leave was harsh and very much in the open. Said a human resource manager for a city, talking of fathers who took parental leave, "The concern here might be that they might be viewed as not fitting in. I'm thinking of the police department, for instance. If they wanted to go out for a couple of months and stay home with the family. Uh [comic pause] no."

"This is confidential, right?" someone who worked at a mid-sized transportation company. "I can tell you that a lot of the people that are in management here are....from the old school. You don't pay dads to take time off to be home to take care of the children. Just forget it, that's ridiculous. I never did it. Forget it. My wife takes care of that stuff."

All I can say is this: watch out. As pointed out in a recent article in the Harvard Business Review, people can sue you over this kind of stuff. Under two different statutes:

The FMLA makes it illegal to discourage anyone, male or female, for taking leave they're entitled to. And it's equally illegal to penalize them for doing so--men as well as women.

And Title VII, the basic federal law prohibiting gender discrimination in employment, prohibits employers from treating men any differently from women with respect to leave or any other term or condition of employment.

The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of strongly encourages our readers to post comments in response to blog posts. We value diversity of opinions and perspectives. Our goals for this space are to be educational, thought-provoking, and respectful. So we actively moderate comments and we reserve the right to edit or remove comments that undermine these goals. Thanks!