“Dads don’t take sick days.” We’ve all heard the line, most famously in a series of NyQuil ads. But the lighthearted comment and commercials hide a darker reality about paid leave for working parents in the United States.
Six years ago, my wife and I wanted to have our first child. I was a successful public high school teacher in one of the nation’s largest and wealthiest school districts. I had worked hard to get through grad school and earn a solid middle-class career. When I asked my supervisor how much paid paternal leave I’d receive for my son’s birth, I was shocked.
Considering we were in the hospital for two days, if we’d had him during the school year (we didn’t, for this reason) I would have received one paid day off when we got him homes. One day to bond, adapt to late night feedings, support my wife, and say goodbye before I had to be back in the classroom the next day. Even worse, I was told I was welcome to take far more time off — as much unpaid time off as I desired, but I shouldn’t expect a job when I return.
Unfortunately, my situation was not unique. Actually, it was more generous than many other working American parents receive.
U.S. dead last when it comes to paid leave
The United States is one of the only industrialized nation that offers no national paid family leave at all. No maternity, no paternity, no paid time to take care of sick or dying relatives, and absolutely no time to take care of ourselves. No paid leave for working parents — period. The one guarantee most working parents in America have comes from the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, which states employers with 50 or more workers must allow parents 12 weeks of job-protected leave annually to care for a newborn — in many cases the leave is unpaid.
Suddenly, the line “Dads don’t get sick days” sounded a lot more insidious. (And for the record, moms don’t get sick days either).
I ended up doing OK when our son was born. We planned carefully, had him over the summer, and I didn’t work my normal summer job. But it’s just one example of how tricky a situation can become. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Compensation Survey, nearly three in four workers do not have paid family leave through their jobs, and three in five lack access to paid medical leave through their employer. While a few states and some employees do offer paid leave for parents, they are an exception not the rule. What’s more, this problem is truly American. Only the United States and Papua New Guinea, out of every industrialized nation on Earth, offer no weeks of paid leave. There’s an excellent documentary called Zero Weeks available to stream that highlights this issue.
Now it is more important than ever to change that disappointing statistic. We’re living through the worst public health crisis in a millennium. Every time I stand in the long lines for the state-sponsored COVID-19 tests I have the same panicked thoughts. I don’t care about being sick or feeling discomfort. I just worry about my kids. Even if it’s a mild case, who will watch them? Who will help take care of them? Will my wife be able to take leave?
Making the case for paid family leave
According to data pooled by the Kaiser Family Foundation, the temporary paid leave policies in The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act), signed into law March 27, 2020, directly impacted workplace health and seemed to correspond to large drops in COVID cases. However, these provisions expired in September. Once again, there’s zero paid leave. If you’re sick, you have to hope your employer offers some type of paid leave for working parents, but there’s a good chance they don’t.
Admittedly, many U.S. employers are starting to notice the issue. However, many small employers cannot afford to offer paid leave, and many larger corporations tightly restrict and limit what they do provide. In every other nation, this problem is subsidized by their government and public-private relations that ensure paid leave for all be it for personal illness, caring for a newborn or loved one, or handling a death in the family.
A month ago, I called my two U.S. senators. I’ve never done something like that. I vote, but I’m not very political. Yet, here I was on the phone with my senators (it’s quite easy to find their numbers), telling them what I was thinking. Paid leave for working parents is something both parties are discussing. I told them the story about those three days I was offered. I told them about the tears and frustration my wife, and I shared figuring out what to do. And I told them I was sick of seeing America listed as the only industrialized country without paid leave for its workers. That’s how you make change in this country. Not by jumping into fights on Facebook or Twitter, but by talking to your elected representatives.
We’re dads. We don’t get sick days.
But we should.