Q&A with Jerry Cammarata
Paternity leave pioneer says more pro-friendly laws needed
Q: You filed and won the first-ever paternity leave lawsuit against the New York City Board of Education in 1983. Could you give us a summary of the case?
A: My case was decided by the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which ruled equal paternity leave had to be extended by any company that granted maternity leave. The NYC Board of Education consequently granted me unpaid leave, so I could be a full-time dad to my kids, alongside their full-time mom.
Q: Under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which came 10 years after your historic decision, companies with 50 or more workers are required to give both men and women — who've worked for their employer 12 months altogether and at least 1,250 hours during the previous year — up to 12 weeks' unpaid leave to care for a newborn. Why do so few dads take advantage of it?
A: Even with the backing of FMLA, there are no financial resources to support taking paternity leave, except in the rare circumstances where paid leave is offered. For me to afford taking paternity leave 40 years ago, my wife and I moved in with her parents, trimmed the household budget and, when the kids were sleeping, I worked part-time as a speech and language pathologist. Beyond the financial barrier, most men still believe they'll suffer professionally if they take paternity leave. The good news is there are improvements. States like New Jersey, Washington, D.C., South Carolina and California have legislated paid leaves to workers.
Q: Only 13 percent of American employers offer paid paternity leave. Why are South Asian and European countries so far ahead of the U.S. in paid paternity leave?
A: The cultures of South Asian and European countries put a higher value on family than on work and understand the father role model is as important as the mother. When dads aren't present or are frequently absent, children do poorly in school and engage in crime, drugs and other destructive behaviors. Companies and/or professions that recognize this — like osteopathic physicians, who treat the whole family and counsel parents to be active and supportive of their children's needs — contribute to more successful households and better adults of tomorrow.
Q: What are your recommendations for revisions to America's employment laws?
A: As an extension of FMLA, our laws should require up to four weeks' of paid leave, with one day a week for an additional four weeks to assist with medical appointments. Moreover, allowances must be included for full accrued sick and vacation time to be used by an employee to further augment a paternity leave. Dads should be allowed to continue 401(k) contributions while on leave, and we should allow for “new dad bank accounts,” where money can be saved tax-free and used if a leave needs to be privately supported.
PAULA BURKES, BUSINESS WRITER