Fathers beginning to ask for equal time off as new parents

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When his third child was born, John Neill of West View already was an experienced stay-at-home dad. His wife Elise's salary was higher than his, so he took on the primary child care responsibilities for their son and daughter, now 10 and 12.

"Now, we have a baby at home who's a year-and-half old, and I love every minute of it," he said of his stay-at-home role.

Mr. Neill is part of the small but growing number of American fathers seeking a larger role in their children's day-to-day care. And among that group, some dads are challenging the workplace and societal norms that say fathers ought to return to work sooner than mothers.

"Millennial men are insisting on their legal rights, and older men are baffled," said Joan C. Williams, director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California Hastings College of the Law. "It's not within the realm of the thinkable for these older guys that a man would risk his job based on the issue of parental leave."

Last month, CNN reporter Joshua Levs filed suit against his employer's parent company, Time Warner, saying its family leave policy is discriminatory. While the policy provides 10 weeks of paid leave for mothers after giving birth, and 10 weeks for adoptive parents -- whether male or female -- the policy provides only two weeks of paid leave for biological fathers.

"There is no question fathers are taking more family leave, but they still take much less time than mothers," said Duquesne University professor Rona Kitchen, who teaches labor law and work-life law. "There have been deeply-rooted societal workplace norms, saying that's not where fathers are supposed to be. But the norms have shifted -- 40 years ago, men weren't even in the delivery room when their children were born."

Mr. Levs declined to comment on his case, referring questions to his attorneys. But in an Oct. 30 post on his personal blog (joshlevs.tumblr.com), Mr. Levs wrote that before he filed the claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, he tried to persuade Time Warner to change the policy, without success. "This fight will probably be seen as a sign of the times and the battle for fathers' rights in general. That's fair and legit," Mr. Levs wrote. "But it's also more than that. This is about equality and fairness for everyone."

To be sure, any company offering paid maternity or paternity leave is ahead of the national trend. Among industrialized nations, the U.S. is the only one that does not guarantee paid family leave to any parent. The Family Medical Leave Act of 1993 mandates 12 weeks of unpaid leave and no interruption in health insurance benefits for the birth or adoption of a child, but many families simply can't afford to go without a paycheck.

Mr. Levs' attorney, Andrew Coffman, a partner at Atlanta-based firm Parks, Chesin & Walbert, said Time Warner's policy suggests a woman who gives birth experiences a period of medical disability, making her eligible for 26 weeks of unpaid medical disability leave (which Mr. Levs is not contesting). But, if the company is making the implicit argument that mothers should get an additional 10 weeks of paid leave because they've just endured an exhausting medical event, why is the 10-week option available to adoptive or surrogate parents?

"This rationale does not square with the 10 weeks given to adoptive parents who require no medical recovery time," Mr. Coffman said. "Taken as a whole, the benefits extended to men appear to be inferior to those given to women." That's a key factor in Mr. Levs' case, since under the EEOC, fathers are not a class protected from discrimination, but men are.

A Time Warner spokeswoman sent the following statement from the company: "We don't comment on pending legal matters; however it should be noted that Time Warner and its businesses have been recognized for providing employees with some of the most progressive and inclusive benefits made available. The company's parental leave policy is fair, non-discriminatory, flexible and available to all employees."

Mr. Neill, for his part, agrees that fathers, primary caregivers or not, should get more paid time off after a child is born. And while he praised Mr. Levs' stance as "noble," he isn't optimistic about changing attitudes toward caring for children any time soon. "As a country, I think it's going to take us another 50 years to get this right," he said.

Kim Lyons: klyons@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1241.

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