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Paid leave for men a relative success

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"I'd usually had a week - maybe a week and a half - to help out," the Chula Vista, Calif., resident said. "That wasn't enough."

But Brown was ready when his son, Gavin, arrived May 18. For the first time, he used the state's paid-family-leave system to take five weeks off from his job as a field technician for a cable TV company.

He spent the time helping Kaylani, 8, and Mariah, 6, get ready in the morning, driving them to school and picking them up in the afternoons. He entertained his youngest daughter, 4-year-old Eden. He did household chores to help his wife, Elizabeth, and took time to be with his newborn son.

"I finally felt I had enough time to really help my wife," said Brown, who recently returned to work.

He said he felt he made a difference this time around, giving his wife a chance to recover from childbirth before she took on full-time child care solo.

Nearly two years ago, California became the first state to introduce a paid-family-leave program. While thousands of fathers have taken the paid leave, its relatively low use demonstrates how slow social change can be.

In its first year, 155,483 Californians - less than 1.2 percent of those eligible - took paid family leave to bond with their newborns or newly adopted children. The experts had predicted nearly twice as many workers would use paid family leave.

About 17 percent of those leaves were taken by men, a percentage that has increased slightly in the program's second year.

Ruth Milkman, a sociology professor who directs the University of California Los Angeles Institute of Industrial Relations, said it's a step forward for men to even consider taking family leave.

"Fifty years ago, that was unimaginable," Milkman said. "Now, it's imaginable. But we still have a way to go."

The state's paid family leave, which covers about 13 million residents, allows workers to take off as much as six weeks a year at 55 percent of full pay - to a maximum of $840 per week - to spend time with new babies or adopted children, or to take care of ill family members.


Studies suggest that bonding between newborns and their parents is an important step in an infant's social and cognitive development.

The family leaves are funded by employee contributions to the state's disability plan. Full-time workers earning minimum wage pay as little as $11 a year to fund the leave program, while the median contribution is about $27 per year.

California is the only state that offers paid leave for extended child-bonding or family care, though legislators in Massachusetts, Illinois, Washington and Pennsylvania have discussed similar programs.

"I really think a lot of men still don't realize this is an option for them," said Jean Bruni, an attorney for Employers Legal Advisors of California. "At the same time, employers have told me that some men want to take the paid leave, but they can't afford it."

Initially, employers and business groups feared that workers would abuse paid leave and the new law would be a burden, just another regulation putting California businesses at a competitive disadvantage with other states.

"It really hasn't proven to be a problem for most employers," said Matt Bartosiak of The Employers Group, a human resources adviser to 2,500 California businesses. "What's happened ... is that it has raised a lot of questions by employers on how to use it, but their concerns seem to have faded."

Bartosiak said the law has been used primarily by women who exhaust their four months of leave under the state's pregnancy leave program and extend time off by tapping into the paid family leave.

Though no one knows whether more men are spending time bonding with their children because of the nearly 2-year-old law, Milkman says the state's statistics on its use are encouraging.

"It certainly seems that men are using the law, and we would expect that to grow as more people learn about it," she said.

Surveys suggest that men are increasingly concerned about work-life balance and want access to things like paid family leave, said Vincent DiCaro of the National Fatherhood Initiative in Gaithersburg, Md.

"Men just don't seem to vocalize these things as well as women," DiCaro said. "For that reason we tend to think they don't care, but they certainly do. They do seem to still wrestle with the stigma of taking time off of work.

"They think they won't get a promotion or their career will suffer. They think they won't be taken seriously if they take time off."


Heather Rocha, a work-life specialist for online job site, agrees that American society tends to assign child-care responsibilities to women.

"There seems to be a lingering thought that they (men) will be sabotaging their careers if they put their family ahead of the job," Rocha said. "It's like Big Brother is watching and will know if they are not sitting there."

Brown found a different environment when his work supervisors learned his wife was pregnant. He was told about the leave policy and encouraged to take it early after his wife took a fall late in her pregnancy and was confined to bed rest.

"I didn't realize it was something I could take before the baby was born," Brown said. "The company actually told me I could and encouraged me to do that. I've talked to the company while I've been on leave, and they have been very supportive of me taking this time every step of the way."

Rocha said that while many women welcome and plan to use paid family leave, men often try to meet family responsibilities by being resourceful with flex time.

"I think men think it is OK to disappear for a couple of hours here and there, but they still see child care as a woman's job," she said.

California state Sen. Sheila Kuehl, a Democrat who wrote the paid-leave bill, said one of her goals was to make it more socially acceptable for men to take time off for family issues.

"While these things usually still fall to women, I do think companies are giving a little more support to men when they want to take time off for family," Kuehl said.

There might be a simple economic explanation for why women taking paid family leave outnumber men 4-to-1, said sociology professor Scott Coltrane of the University of California Riverside.

"In many cases, I think it is an economic decision," Coltrane said. "Men often earn more than women, and the family loses less if the woman takes time off. Of course, in the long run, the earning power of women suffers because of their time outside of the work force, so there are some long-term impacts that exist."

An American woman working outside the home earns 77 cents for every dollar a man earns, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The gender wage gap has been a continuing source of debate, though it clearly is affected by women leaving the work force temporarily for childbirth or child-rearing duties.


"I always say the best way to get more men to participate in family-leave programs is to pay women more," Coltrane said.

Brown said he began saving several months ahead of time to cushion the financial hit from taking time off.

"I knew that I was going to only get 55 percent of my pay, and that's a big cut," he said. "I talked to some guys at work about it, and they all thought they couldn't afford to do it. But we don't have relatives to depend on, and I knew I needed to be at home for as long as I could because my wife needed that. So we started saving."

Just getting the message out about paid leave - to both men and women - has been a challenge. The UCLA Institute of Industrial Relations found that 22 percent of California workers were aware of the law when it took effect July 1, 2004. The percentage rose to 29.5 percent of workers in a follow-up survey last summer.

"We've made progress, but not enough," said Milkman, the UCLA sociology professor. "Will we ever get to the point that paid leave is used by 50 percent women and 50 percent men? Probably not, but people have to know about the law before they can use it."

Arena Pharmaceuticals in San Diego is one company that notifies workers about leave options when it learns an employee or an employee's partner is pregnant.

"Our HR department sends them an e-mail that presents the options for taking time off," Arena general counsel Steve Spector said. "We know that a lot of people, even if they heard about leave policies at one point, will not remember them when they need them. We want them to know what their options are."

Eleven Arena employees have used the state's paid leave, including five men. Spector, however, passed last year when his wife gave birth to a boy.

"My job has demands that wouldn't allow me to take that much time off," he said.

Junior Liuchan of Carlsbad, Calif., who has worked in network operations for 10 years, took another route when his wife, Karrie, gave birth to his son, Inoa-Ala, on May 5.

"This was our first child, and I knew the dynamics of my family were about to change," Liuchan said. "It has always been just my wife and I. I really wanted to bond with my son because the focus of the family was changing, and I knew I had to be part of that.

He spent three weeks on paid family leave. He said doing household chores and being there to lighten the load on his wife in the weeks after childbirth was rewarding.

"For me, it has always been important to establish the family as the center of my life," Liuchan said. "The leave enabled me to make sure that my family knows that."

© Copley News Service

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