Experts Weigh In on Capitol Hill Paternity Leave Policy

Continued from Dads on Capitol Hill: House Paternity Leave Not So Simple At the recent White House Summit on Working Families, President Barack Obama spoke about the 2 a.m. feedings and soothings when his daughters, Malia and Sasha, were babies. “A whole lot of fathers would love to be home for their new baby’s first weeks,” he said, citing “outdated policies and old ways of thinking” as part of the problem. “The bottom line is 21st century families deserve 21st century workplaces ... and that means paid family leave, especially paid parental leave.”  

But not all dads are comfortable taking time away from the office — even if that time is paid. “They can pay a price financially for it,” said Scott Behson, a professor of management at Fairleigh Dickinson University who runs the blog Fathers, Work and Family. Behson cites a study from the University of California's Hastings College of the Law that showed men who interrupt their employment for family reasons earn significantly less after returning to work. On Capitol Hill, where face time is at a premium, stepping away for several weeks can be difficult, even with a supportive boss.  

But if someone at the top takes paid paternity leave, that can have a positive effect on other staffers. “What your peers do really matters. If the chief of staff will take paid leave, that is when you’re going to get workers to take paid leave,” said Gordon Dahl, an economist at the University of California San Diego who authored a study published this month in The American Economic Review that backs up his point. “You just have to jump start the system somehow.”  

Chris Gaston, chief of staff for Democratic Rep. Rush D. Holt of New Jersey, took the full 12 weeks offered to him for the birth of both of his children, Max and Clare. He credits his boss and former chief of staff Jim Papa with creating a culture where dads could take time off without fear of retaliation. When Gaston returned from paternity leave after the birth of his daughter, he was promoted from legislative director to chief of staff.  

“I took leave twice and ended up becoming chief of staff, I don’t think it penalized anything,” he said.  

Dahl said that work environments such as Capitol Hill — non-unionized with high turnover — are particularly susceptible to peer actions on paid leave. Workers are less apt to take leave unless they feel their job is secure upon their return. “There’s a snowball effect,” he said. “Once people start taking leave, it gets bigger and bigger and can expand to an entire network.”  

But more men asking about — and taking — paternity leave might be the impetus for widespread change, whether it begins with a hard look at the office handbook or by setting a top-down example that taking paid leave is acceptable.  

Brigid Schulte , author of "Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time," believes the dynamics of paid leave are changing.  

“A nascent movement is cranking up,” Schulte said. “A national conversation is finally starting that the way we expect families to live and work is unsustainable.”  

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