Four years ago, after being elected to the New York City Council, we both learned what it means to be a public official the only way you really can: on the job. Now we are learning on the job in a very different role, with our families, as fathers of new children. As we experience this once-in-a-lifetime moment alongside our respective partners, we are excited and, perhaps like all parents, more than a little nervous. Helping to settle our nerves is the fact that we’re able to stay home with our families as we navigate this new stage in life. We are both lucky: As elected officials, our leave is at our discretion. We have both decided to take the time to be with our families.
In the United States, new parents seeking time with their child face both a legal and cultural challenge. There is no national mandate for paid family leave. Even where it is offered, fathers remain a lot less likely than mothers to take full advantage. As elected officials and as fathers, we hope that taking leave will help empower other new fathers who are considering their leave options to take time as well.
Being at home following the birth or adoption of a child should not be a luxury reserved for elected officials or those who can afford to forgo their salaries. Everywhere outside of the United States, it’s not. Some form of paid family leave is mandatory in every other nation in the world, with the exception of Papua New Guinea.
Congress finally guaranteed some employees 12 weeks of unpaid leave with the passage of the 1993 Family Medical Leave Act. Unfortunately, the Department of Labor estimated in 2012 that caveats in the law exclude from coverage four out of five work sites. Without paid leave, nearly half of employees say that even if they do qualify, they can’t afford to take unpaid leave.
In New York we have begun to make progress, notably with Gov. Andrew Cuomo enacting the strongest paid family leave policy in the country, joining California, New Jersey and Rhode Island in going beyond unpaid leave. Since Jan. 1, New Yorkers who qualify – parents during the first year of the birth or adoption, caretakers for sick immediate family, workers with immediate family who have been notified of mandatory overseas military service, and anyone working at least 20 hours per week – can take up to eight weeks of paid leave at 50 percent of their salary. In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio in 2015 announced paid parental leave for many New York City employees at 100 percent pay for up to 12 weeks.
We proudly supported both of these policies. However, the mayor’s announcement came with a huge caveat: The new policy only covers what are called managerial employees, failing to cover police officers, teachers, principals and other civil servants whose benefits are collectively bargained, and still go without paid family leave. It is standard for benefits to be determined through collective bargaining. However, rather than holding the policy as a bargaining chip, the mayor should commit now to work with unions to provide paid family leave by amending current contacts or by providing it in the next round of contracts.
As New York City councilmen and as New Yorkers who are kept safe by our police, ride our public transit and depend on city services from clean tap water to garbage pickup, we firmly believe we must provide our public employees with the same benefits we are now demanding from the private sector.
Fixing the law can only take us so far. Even as we enact new policies, parents – and fathers in particular – are not taking leave. While nearly 90 percent of fathers in the United States take some time off work for the birth or adoption of a child, they tend to take only one day of leave for every month a mother takes.
Many fathers are concerned about pressure from their workplace and a stigmaagainst paternal leave, but it is time for our culture to change. Staying at home is good for our children and for parents, regardless of the parent’s gender. The sacrifice to careers that results from taking time off to raise a child cannot fall only on mothers. The more normal it becomes for men in particular to take leave, the less they will see it as a threat to their careers, as our former colleague Daniel Garodnick has argued.
As first-time fathers, we believe each of us must do our best to define what it means to be a man. This means being at home so our children can bond with their parents and so that our wives, like us, can continue in their careers.
We hope that anybody with the ability to take leave will do so, and that as legislators, we can change our laws so all city employees and eventually all New Yorkers can. And we hope that our society begins to expect from its fathers that they will take full paid paternity leave.