Chicago is doing something the US should do: Provide paid parental leave for both parents

Jeffery M. Leving
Chicago Tribune (TNS)

Starting Jan. 1, all 32,000 employees of the city of Chicago will be eligible to take up to 12 weeks of paid parental leave whether they are the birthing or nonbirthing parent.

This new policy, announced by Mayor Lori Lightfoot late last month, is something that the federal government tried and failed to do with the Build Back Better Act — and something it should try again.

Many countries offer this kind of leave, and although a handful of states and cities in the U.S. have passed family leave and paternity leave laws, it is not good enough. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, a global policy forum, placed the U.S. dead last among its member countries in a summary of parental leave laws in 2018.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot delivers an address on public safety at the Garfield Park fieldhouse on Dec. 20, 2021, in Chicago. (E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

More:York College soccer team makes emotional return after player's death

More:Coroner says York College soccer player's death not suspicious

More:Clerk's office agrees to settle lawsuit over access complaints

It is especially encouraging that these policies include mothers and fathers — as study after study shows the importance of fathers in their children’s lives, and study after study shows the benefits of paternal involvement in those vital first weeks.

Because of the Federal and Medical Leave Act of 1993, the U.S. does offer paternity leave, but it’s an unpaid benefit that actually helps only rich fathers. For many men, including fathers of color, FMLA is not a practical benefit. Such support should not be a luxury for the rich.

Under Chicago’s policy, a city employee is eligible if the person has been working for the city for at least a year before taking the leave and has worked at least 1,250 hours during those 12 months. The new policy evolved from contract talks between the city and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, according to news reports.

Federal lawmakers put forth a similar plan in the early drafts of the Build Back Better Act last year that would have allowed each parent working for any employer in the U.S. to take four weeks of paid leave after the birth of a child. (The act’s initial proposal was for 12 weeks of paid sick and parental leave.)

Unfortunately, as the bill proceeded through Congress, more and more of provisions were stripped from it, including paid parental leave. This is an international embarrassment.

Paid parental leave is essential. Only about 13% of working Americans in the private sector had access to paid parental leave in 2019 — and it was available to only 7% to 8% of people employed in service and maintenance positions, according to an MSNBC report. Usually, paternity leave is a perk for employees with skills that are in high demand. For lower-income families and individuals, taking paternity leave is far more difficult.

In my law practice, I represent struggling clients who are not guaranteed time off when a child is born. This is neither fair nor just.

Chicago’s mayor got it done, unlike the politicians in Washington, and should be applauded for it. Lightfoot went further and called on private companies to follow Chicago’s lead and offer a similar benefit — something companies would be wise to do, especially as the competition to attract talent has never been tougher.

A similar policy at the federal level that would include all employees is long overdue and should be passed so that all Americans would have the opportunity to be with their children during the first crucial months of their kids’ lives.

– Jeffery M. Leving is founder and president of the Law Offices of Jeffery M. Leving and an advocate for the rights of fathers. He is the author of “Fathers Rights,” “Divorce Wars” and “How to be a Good Divorced Dad.”