Paternity Leave in the U.S. Explained

If you're an expectant dad, looking ahead to the birth of your baby, you might be considering taking some time off work to care for your partner and newborn. Or, you may be looking to take time off to care for your baby after your partner has returned to work. As part of this, you might be wondering what options you have for taking paternity leave.

Read on to find out what paternity leave is, whether you might be eligible, what other leave options you might have, and what the benefits are of taking some time off to bond with your newborn.

What Is Paternity Leave?

Paternity leave refers to time taken off work by men in order to spend time with and care for their newborn or for their adopted child or foster child.

If your workplace offers it, you may be eligible for paid paternity leave. In some situations, however, you may have access only to unpaid leave — in which case you'll also need to consider how much time you can afford to take off — or have no options for taking paternity leave.

Each employer has its own policy. Sometimes, paternity leave is lumped in with other forms of leave like paid time off or sick leave. In this case, if you'd like to take paternity leave, it will come out of your vacation or sick days.

Some companies might use terms like “parental leave” or “family leave” and allow both new moms and new dads to access it.

Who Can Access Paternity Leave?

Access to paternity leave depends on your situation, including where you work and where you live.

Policies vary from company to company and state to state. For example, some companies offer paid paternity leave while others don't. Some companies do offer leave but without pay.

Some companies may extend their policy to those in a nontraditional relationship, whereas others might require parents to be married. Some companies might offer paternity leave to you if you are adopting or fostering a child, while others don't.

Some companies offer a standard amount of leave, while some companies make distinctions about the leave that can be taken based on factors like how long you've worked with the company as well as your employment status.

Some states have laws that grant a certain amount of paid family leave that can be used for paternity leave. Read more about this in the eligibility section below.

Check with your employer's HR department to find out what paternity leave you may be eligible for. Also check the HR policy to find out how far in advance you need to make the request for paternity leave. It might be around the time your partner is in the second trimester.

How Long Is Paternity Leave?

If you have access to paternity leave, how long this leave might be depends on a number of factors, including your employer's policies and what state you live and work in (see the next section for more details). Check with your company's HR department to find out what's available.

In some cases, paternity leave is less generous than maternity leave. This means, if you're in a two-dad household, for example, you might need to take leave in separate shifts instead of at the same time to cover a longer period.

Who Is Eligible for Paid Paternity Leave?

A handful of states along with the nation's capital have a paid family leave policy, which is an umbrella policy that includes paternity leave, maternity leave, sick leave, etc. Each state's laws differ in the amount of paternity leave they offer and how much is paid. Be sure to check to see if you're eligible for any paid paternity leave your state offers.

Your healthcare provider may also be able to give you this kind of information.

Some companies also offer paid leave. For example, some companies offer up to 17 weeks of paid paternity leave. Check with your employer to see what — if any — paid paternity leave you may be able to take advantage of.

Can You Get Unpaid Paternity Leave?

If your workplace doesn't have a paid leave policy, it may have an unpaid paternity leave policy. If neither is available, you may be able to take time off under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). This federal law guarantees up to 12 weeks of unpaid family leave in a 12-month period for covered employees — see below for eligibility criteria — and ensures that you can return to the same job or an equivalent job when you return.

This can be used for paternity leave — time off to care for a newborn or newly placed adopted child or foster child — as well as other occasions when you need time off, for example to care for a sick child or parent.

For time taken off for the birth of your child, or for when your adopted child or foster child is placed with you, the FMLA requires that you take your leave within one year of your child's birth or placement. The leave must be taken in one continuous block unless your employer grants you special permission for intermittent leave.

To be eligible for the unpaid family leave under the FMLA, you must

  • work for a covered employer

  • have worked 1,250 hours in the 12 months leading up to the start of your leave

  • work at a location in which the employer has 50 or more employees within 75 miles

  • have worked 12 months for the employer, not necessarily consecutively.

Keep in mind, your employer might request that you use your vacation days or sick days before entering the unpaid leave offered under the FMLA. A number of states have also enacted laws similar to the FMLA; some may even offer more weeks off than the federal law does.

Get in touch with your HR department to find out how you can take leave under the FMLA or your state's laws.

Benefits of Paternity Leave

The birth of a child is an exciting milestone, but many dads discover that fatherhood is still a challenge — it's not easy balancing work and family life.

Taking time off for the birth of your baby can be beneficial for both you and your baby. For example, it can help with parent-child bonding.

Studies have shown that dads who took off two weeks or more were much more likely to be active in their child's lives nine months down the line. Children who grow up with more involved dads also tend to have better developmental outcomes.

Of course, you might not be able to take several weeks off, and that's OK. Any amount helps, and there are many different ways you can be involved in your newborn's life in the mornings, at nights, and on weekends.

For example, you can bond with your baby by doing the middle-of-the-night bottle feeds, taking on diaper changes, and handling bath time duties. You can also enjoy playtime at the weekends, for example. No matter when you carve out the time, your little one will be happy to see you!

If you're thinking of going on paternity leave to bond with your baby and support your partner after she gives birth, it's important to check what your employer offers nice and early, and to check to see if you're eligible for unpaid paternity leave by way of the FMLA or your state's regulations. No matter how much time you take off, enjoy all the precious moments you can with your newborn.

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