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Austin Chronicle Mr. Mom

More Men Are Taking Time off From Work to Enjoy Fatherhood

By Jonathan David Carroll

JULY 3, 2000:  Frank Delgado has wall-papered the nursery, set up the crib, and even purchased a book on fatherhood to prepare for the birth of his daughter in August.Delgado works for Janus Financial, an Austin mutual fund company, which allowed him to use personal time to take off from work next month.

"It's such a relief that he can take off because it's going to be such a stressful time," says Frank's wife Melba Delgado, a first-grade teacher at Allison Elementary School. From Delgado to the prime minister of Great Britain, today's fathers are faced with the decision of whether to take paternity leave after the birth of a child. Delgado is part of an ever-growing number of men who take time off after their children are born.

Not all fathers are so lucky. Unlike Delgado, many men are unable to take paternity leave because of financial constraints or pressure from supervisors to put their jobs first. Giving paternity leave equal billing with maternity leave is an issue that state legislators and company bosses are grappling with nationwide.

"It's now time to give men the same freedom and opportunity in the family that women were given in the workplace years ago," says Hugh Nations, executive director of Men and Fathers Resource Center in Austin, which provides free legal and therapy services to families. "Granted, fathers do not encounter the same physical problems as mothers, but certainly men should be given the time to bond with the child through spending time" with the newborn, Nations adds.

The Family and Medical Leave Act gives most fathers the option of taking time off. The act mandates that all employers with 50 or more workers must allow employees up to 12 unpaid weeks off to care for a new baby or seriously ill family member. Employees are guaranteed their jobs back when they return.

According to the National Partnership for Women and Families, four million people take leave every year. Equal numbers of men and women take leaves each year -- about two million each -- but only 500,000 men take paternity leave, compared to 1.4 million women who take maternity leave.

Financial considerations pose the biggest roadblock for men who want to take time off after the birth of a child, says Sandhya Subramanian, policy counsel for the National Partnership for Women and Families. Without paid leave, she says, many people are left with the impossible choice: job or family? "I think it's important for men to be allowed to be empowered in the business of raising a family."

According to the 1997 Employee Benefits Survey, only about 2% of paternity or maternity leave is paid. This often makes it impossible for both the mother and father to take paternity and maternity leave during this time.

Of the major employers in Austin, only IBM offers paid paternity and maternity leave. IBM customarily gives fathers two weeks' paid vacation after the birth of a child and mothers six to eight weeks. (The Chronicle offers two weeks of paid leave for fathers and six weeks for mothers.)

Paid paternity leave was added to the IBM benefits package only three years ago, said Charles King, human resources partner with IBM. "We try and understand the need for fathers to bond with the newborn baby just like the mothers," King says. He adds that the leave is not a major recruiting tool for IBM, since the company typically recruits young people who aren't yet concerned with paternity or maternity leaves. But in today's new economy, more companies are offering paid leave to lure employees in a competitive job market. "It costs more to replace someone than it does to pay for their three-month leave, because they have to train employees and there's a shortage of workers," Subramanian explains. "Companies are realizing that providing paid leave is an advantage, not a disadvantage."

According to the 1998 Business Work-Life Survey, companies with more than 250 employees, and with larger proportions of unionized workers, are more likely to offer at least 12 weeks of unpaid paternity leave. Moreover, companies with at least some top executive positions filled by minorities are more likely to offer paternity leaves longer than 12 weeks.

Last year, President Bill Clinton called on states to begin pilot programs that would provide unemployment benefits to employees during part of their time off, with both mothers and fathers eligible. So far, legislation to that effect is pending in Massachusetts, Maryland, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Washington.

"It's really a step in the right direction," Subramanian says of the pending laws. "Also, using temporary disability benefits is another way some states are looking to fund this. Unemployment benefits are only one vehicle."

Texas: Business As Usual

Is Texas considering heeding Clinton's call? "No, we have no position on that specific idea," says Mike Jones, gubernatorial press officer for George W. Bush. "It obviously needs further review and extensive study to gauge its impact. If it were proposed it would be an idea that would need to be considered and approved by the Texas Legislature when they re-convene in 2001."

The Texas Legislature's Senate Health Services Committee also has no plans for such legislation, and declined to comment. And Ed Sills, spokesman for the Texas AFL-CIO, says this position runs counter to the GOP-inspired "Families First" message the Legislature sends to the public. "In Texas we pay particular lip service to saying we want our children healthy and educated, but the Legislature supports polices that go against families," Sills says. "Their lip service goes against their actions. Fathers need to stand up against this and be counted. Texas is behind the curve on this."

But Mike Bartlett, manager of labor law policy for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, counters that using unemployment benefits to pay working parents undermines the system. "If they want to have paid leave, then they need to amend the Family and Medical Leave Act," Bartlett says, "not play games with existing regulation." And he adds that the policy would harm small businesses because they would be paying into a system that neither they nor their employees qualify for.

These days, the majority of America believes men should take paternity leave. A 2000 poll by the Oxygen/Markle Pulse, a national research firm, found that both men and women would like for new fathers to take at least three weeks off after the birth or adoption of a child. Yet very few Americans know any men who have actually taken that much time off -- on average, according to the same poll, men report having taken less than one week of paternity leave.

When men don't take off from work after the birth of a child, Subramanian says, parenting is viewed as a woman's job, and mothers have to take on the responsibilities of both parenthood and work. "It overtasks women because they are expected to take care of both spheres," she says. "It makes women have to work double shifts at work and home, [and] makes it difficult for women to advance."

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