Josh Levs Fought His Employer For Paternity Leave. Now, He’s Advocating For Everyone Else

The reporter has become one of the world's leading voices on the fight for paternity leave.

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Josh Levs went from reporting on parenting issues to becoming one of the biggest stories in parenting. In 2015, the longtime CNN reporter asked his employer for paternity leave to spend time with his daughter, who born premature, and his wife, who was sick. Time Warner, which offered paid leave to mothers but not fathers, turned him down. So Levs filed a gender discrimination suit with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Levs and Time Warner settled, and in the wake, the media giant changed its leave policies to be better for dads.

Despite the support of many people who rallied around Levs, still fewer than 15 percent of American employers offer paid leave to spouses of new mothers. Levs, the author of All In: How Our Work-First Culture Fails Dads, Families, and Businesses — And How We Can Fix It Together, in which he discusses the state of parental policies, has parlayed his expertise beyond journalism. Now, he’s advocating for The Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act. Sponsored by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Rep. Rosa DeLauro, the proposed legislation would establish a fund that would guarantee workers two-thirds pay for up to 12 weeks for parental leave (or to care for themselves or family members, and even pregnancy.) Fatherly spoke with Levs about the state of paid leave in America and what future awaits modern fathers.

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Josh Levs photographed with his two younger children. (Facebook / Josh Levs)

What are the biggest hurdles modern dads face in securing paid family leave?

When you look at the really big picture, you understand our workplace structures were created in the Mad Men era. The presumption was women would stay home and men would work. That’s what’s behind all of this. The problems are rooted in our laws, policies, and social stigmas, and we have to tackle all three. The laws are ridiculous and shameful — we’re the only industrialized nation that doesn’t provide paid maternity leave.

Where does the issue stand, policy-wise?

We have nonsensical patchworks of policy that even leave managers and lawyers unclear about what they are. Nationally we have unpaid leave, but it’s not guaranteed to everyone. Slightly more than half of companies have maternity leave for women, but it’s usually disability leave, the same as when you break a leg. After my lawsuit, the EEOC sent out guidance letters saying companies have to distinguish the type of leave they’re giving.

Levs interviewed on national television. (Facebook / Josh Levs)

How do social stigmas play into it?

The overwhelming majority of paternity leave available goes unused. This is proven, it’s not a theory. My book is filled with examples of men who took paternity leave or sought it and were punished, fired, demoted or lost job opportunities because it seemed un-macho. A lot of our workplace culture is built that way. Those stigmas are more powerful than any law or policy.

Contrary to the stereotype, today’s dads are very involved. Almost 100 percent of dads who live with their kids care for them in almost every category every day. The exception are the CEOs. They look for guys in the ranks who are like them — who work, work, work, work — and raise them up in the ranks. When businesses instead look at who’s getting the most work done, and you can use any metric, often the people with the best records are not the people who sit at their desks the most. We have to change this false idea that working around the clock is a good thing. It’s actually more suggestive that you don’t know how to get your work done or don’t have the right amount of work.

Given the state of things, how can new dads be diplomatic about taking leave?

First of all, stand up and take the paternity leave you’re given. And don’t hide it — speak out about it. Before you go on leave, it’s a good idea to tell your clients how long you’re going to be out and who will handle your work. You can add that you’ll only hear from the office if there’s an emergency. Do not create a regular block of time to check in because that sends the signal that you’re available to work. If they think you’re available, they’ll expect you to work.

If upon return you suffer some punishment or negative career consequence, take action. Meet with your bosses and HR. Start in the most positive way, with the belief that they’ll want to help, but don’t be afraid to assert your right — you’re fighting for your workplace to be better. Men are starting to realize their legal rights: Twenty-eight percent of caregiving complaints are filed by men who’ve suffered negative impacts for being caregivers.

Levs and two of his children and their friends enjoying a summer day. (Facebook / Josh Levs)

What’s the incentive for businesses to offer better policies?

Companies are starting to figure this out because there’s a war for talent. More than half of men in this country are very likely to switch jobs, take pay cuts, switch careers, or more to a new state or country to spend time with their family. They’re going to lose men if they don’t make paternity leave real. If you create that culture and flexible schedules, men will stay for a longer time.

How can fathers better seek a work-life balance?

As men, we feel financial pressure, but working a 40-hour week is plenty. Your family needs time with you more than fancy gadgets. When you leave work for the day, disconnect from work. I used to put an automatic email response saying I would not be in until the next morning, and colleagues knew only to call me if something came up. That made people stop and question if they really needed to talk to me. The biggest thing guys struggle with because we’re working so hard at work and home is to take care of ourselves. I try to remember that being a good parent means doing things I enjoy that help me relax. I fail at that all the time but I try.

So where do you think things are headed?

The good news is there are some bright spots in terms of emerging state laws and business policies. Families are evolving toward more egalitarianism at home than the stereotypes suggest. We also have numbers of Democrats who are lining up to support paid family leave. But we have a male chauvinist pig in the White House who is not involved in home life but brags about it.

What’s needed to push the country forward?

What we need is for a national paid family leave law, like what exists in California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island. It’s not a law requiring businesses to pay. It’s a gender-neutral insurance program. Workers make a tiny payroll deduction that creates a fund It’s proven to increase profits, it keeps people in the workforce, it increases GPD — it literally works for everyone.

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