Matt Dennis wasn’t used to making reporters wait for a response. But when he was on paternity leave, his newborn son Jonah took priority over his boss, Democratic Rep. Nita M. Lowey of New York, so he put the BlackBerry aside.
“I was still taking calls, and packaging all the calls and emails for when the baby was sleeping,” said Dennis, now spokesman for House Appropriations Committee Democrats. “The press corps understands. If they were on deadline and I wasn’t able to get back, they knew to go to my chief of staff.”
Dennis was lucky — he received 10 weeks of paid paternity leave. But elsewhere on Capitol Hill, it’s an uphill battle for men who work in the House and want to stay home with their newborn. Leave policies vary widely by office; not all offices have stated policies, and those that do sometimes offer little or no paid leave.
The split is evident within House leadership. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., provides her staffers with 12 weeks paid paternity or maternity leave. Speaker John A. Boehner’s office offers two weeks of paid maternity or paternity leave as part of the national Family Medical Leave Act; the remaining 10 weeks are unpaid, though the Ohio Republican's staff can use accrued vacation and sick days.
“Congress has, by tradition, delegated the responsibility of setting workplace rules to members themselves so this falls under that,” said Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill.
In the House, there are 435 policies for 435 different member offices.
Nine of every 10 House offices offer some type of paid leave under the Family Medical Leave Act, according to the 2010 House Compensation Study commissioned by the Office of the Chief Administrative Officer.
Of those that offered paid leave for the birth of a child, 64 percent offered the same amount of time for men and women. (Close to 80 percent offered the same amount in the case of an adoption.)
Still, nearly 10 percent of Hill offices do not offer any paid maternity or paternity leave, and of the offices that do, 2.5 percent offer paid leave only to female staffers. Senate offices were not part of the compensation study, though leave policies also vary by office.
The Congressional Accountability Act makes Hill staffers eligible for FMLA, which guarantees job and health insurance benefits will be there for staffers if they are required to take time off for a qualifying life event, including the birth or adoption of a child. Forty percent of Capitol Hill House offices require one year of employment (12 months or 1,250 hours) before unpaid FMLA kicks in. For a dad-to-be in a relatively new job, that can translate into no time off for a new baby — paid or unpaid.
Even staffers working for members from states that do offer paid leave, such as California, New Jersey and Rhode Island, are exempt from those laws. And in a culture that prioritizes face time, men, more so than women, are reluctant to take time off for fear of losing their position or influence upon returning. Unless an office takes a proactive approach to family leave policies as Lowey's did, new dads on the Hill might be more likely to skip time off.
The lack of a unified policy can work against men seeking to take time off.
“The ambiguity is really an issue for employees,” said Scott Behson, professor of management at Fairleigh Dickinson University, who also runs the blog Fathers, Work and Family. “Companies that are successful with this are very clear; they say, 'This is the policy, and it is available to you. You can talk to your boss about specific arrangements.'”
One House staffer, who declined to be named while discussing his office’s personnel policies, added up all of his vacation and sick days to take three weeks of leave and presented the plan to his office. “They said, 'Go ahead and take it off and don’t worry about it. It’s all kind of last minute. We don’t have a policy. There is nothing written on paper,'” he said.
Dennis learned about Lowey's paternity leave policy in his office handbook, and he worked for a longtime member who had seen other staffers take paid leave. He credits his boss and chief of staff for ensuring a generous policy.
“Nita Lowey has three kids, eight grandchildren, and is very family oriented. She is as excited as the actual grandparents when one of her employees is expecting,” he said.
House offices have an average of just 15 employees between their Washington and district offices, according to estimates compiled by the Congressional Management Foundation. Many offices lack a person on staff with expert knowledge of FMLA. The Office of Employment Counsel, part of the House Administration Committee, creates a “model employee handbook” for distribution at new member orientation and swearing in.
The default option for paid weeks off under FMLA: zero.
“Generally, FMLA leave is unpaid,” the handbook says, along with a caveat that an office does not need to pay for any time and should delete the section specifying so.
The House Administration Committee oversees the production and distribution of the model employee handbook and would not confirm the number of paid weeks provided to staffers, though one source said it was “dismal” and little paid time, if any, was offered.
“As parental leave for one’s staff is likely not a top of mind issue for most members of Congress, this means that most will go with the default or with ad hoc solutions,” Behson said.
The average age of a member of Congress in the House of Representatives is 57, according to data compiled by CQ. Behson speculated that age could lead to a lack of understanding or empathy for the demands of modern families. Or, members of Congress might simply prefer to keep key staffers working.
“It's really easy for members, regardless of party, to take progressive positions on paid maternity and paternity leave [elsewhere from Capitol Hill], when it doesn’t impact how their office runs. These are such small offices, when someone is gone it creates a big void,” said the House staffer who took three weeks paternity leave.
Democratic Rep. Mike Quigley of Illinois didn't like the status quo, so he investigated the handbook and found mixed results of what other lawmakers were offering.
"Most members appreciate and respect their staff, but I had more than a few say, ‘You don’t want to be seen as giving federal employees perks, or even members of Congress perks, because there is such a dim view of us.’ I don’t get the logic of that," Quigley told CQ Roll Call in an interview. He opted for eight paid weeks maternity and paternity leave. "Frankly, it’s not a perk, it’s a quality of life.”
Read more: Experts Weigh in on Capitol Hill Paternity Leave Policies Correction 3:40 p.m. An earlier version of this post misstated how much paid and unpaid paternity/maternity leave Pelosi's office offers.