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Published: Tuesday, 11/18/2003

Toledo area new fathers reluctant to take leave

BY MARY-BETH McLAUGHLIN
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER

There wasn't any question that Thomas Wilson was going to take time off when his second son was born Oct. 30.

The question was how much time, whether it would be paid or unpaid, and what impact it would have on his job as a supervisor in the respiratory therapy department at St. Charles Mercy Hospital in suburban Toledo.

Mr. Wilson had opted to take six weeks unpaid leave when his first son, Evan, was born more than two years ago, but he knew that wouldn't happen this time.

“I didn't have as many bills and a brand new house back then,” said Mr. Wilson. Instead, he saved up vacation days for 18 months and is currently enjoying a three-week stay with Evan, newborn Ethan, and wife, Amy, who is home until January from her job as a vascular ultrasound technician at Toledo Hospital.

“I think the people I work with would think differently of me if I didn't take time off to be with my family,” Mr. Wilson said.

Dads who work at companies with more than 50 employees and who have worked enough hours are allowed to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid time to care for a newborn or newly adopted child under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act.

Although they are eligible, many fathers opt to take only a few days off when their new child comes home.

Lack of pay and fear of what an extended leave would do to their careers are the main reasons given for the short leaves, say experts.

“Paternity leave is definitely something that's getting attention ... although there's a long way to go,” said Kathy Lynch, director of corporate partnerships for the Boston College Center for Work and Family.

A recent survey by about 115 companies in northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan about practices in 2002 and 2003 found 11 percent give paid time off to fathers and 60 percent give such leave without pay, according to the Employers Association, in Sylvania. Nationally, about 12 percent of companies report offering paid paternity leave.

The local survey did not address how long the leaves last. A national poll in 2000, however, found that most men and women said new dads should take more than two weeks off after the birth or adoption of a child, but the average taken was less than a week.

More than three-quarters of men in the local survey said loss of income, not lack of interest, was the main reason for the short leaves.

Local companies acknowledge it's tough to come up with a blanket policy on such issues.

“Everything depends on someone's position and situation,” said Gary Corrigan, a spokesman for Dana Corp. in Toledo. “With a paternity leave, there's usually no cash flow coming in. ... Some men don't even want to take a vacation for fear of jeopardizing their career.”

Boston College's Ms. Lynch said, “Money is definitely a part of it. Until you make it financially feasible to step out of the workplace, do they really have a choice?”

Paternity leave, she said, has been slow to catch on because of a perception among corporations that what they offer for one worker must be offered for all.

“The number of potential fathers you have in the workplace is a large number, so they ask: Can we staff it? Can the business handle it? What about the expense?”

But that perception may be changing. A recent poll by the Families and Work Institute found only one out of 10 companies state that the use of flexible time and leave policies jeopardizes a worker's chances for advancement. The same poll found 40 percent of fathers believe taking a leave could damage their careers.

Such a difference is not surprising to Julie Shields, a nationally known expert on shared parenting and author of How to Avoid the Mommy Trap: A Roadmap for Sharing Parenting and Making it Work.

“A lot of people are more afraid of paternity leave than they should be,” she said. “There's a social bias against men doing it, based on the past belief that it is the mother's job to be responsible for the children.”

There is a growing acceptance at such giant companies as IBM, KPMG, and Deloitte & Touche of offering paternity leave, she said.

“It's a good recruiting tool and retention tool and helps with morale and loyalty,” she said.



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