How a CNN journalist fought for better paid paternity leave — and won

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Journalist Josh Levs has been at the forefront of the paid paternity leave movement since he took on his then employer CNN for longer paid paternity leave and won.

When his third child was born in October 2013, Levs realized that his company’s benefits wouldn’t allow him to take more than two weeks to care for his sick wife, their two young boys and their premature daughter, who was born five weeks early.

“At the time I was already reporting about fatherhood on CNN, so I already was explaining to people across the country and around the world that dads do caregiving too,” Levs told the Yahoo News show “Dear Men.”

Levs, author of the book “All In,” added: “Unfortunately, the policies that exist and the laws and the stigmas have not kept up with reality.”

The United States still remains the only developed country that doesn’t require paid parental leave, according to the Pew Research Center. (On the other end of the spectrum, Estonia offers more than a year and a half of paid leave to new parents.) The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 doesn’t require paid leave in the U.S. — but it does require companies with more than 50 employees to provide 12 weeks of unpaid leave. Only about 14 percent of civilian workers actually have access to paid family leave, according to Pew’s analysis of the 2016 population.

For Levs, being able to take care of his family required more than two weeks. He said, “Anyone could get 10 paid weeks to care for their new kid, except a biological father. … So someone else could adopt my kid and get 10 paid weeks, but not me.”

So Levs filed a written complaint that went all the way to the top of Time Warner, CNN’s parent company. “As if there was anything to decide, it should have just been yes,” he said. “What I did was I filed a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission for gender discrimination … and I spoke openly about this case.” It eventually led to Time Warner’s revolutionizing its parental leave policy, giving a total of six weeks of paid paternity leave.

At the time, the company said in a statement, “CNN is pleased Mr. Levs feels that his concerns have been addressed and has withdrawn his E.E.O.C. charge.”

Like many activists on the issue, Levs believes paternity leave is also important for women. “We’re a generation that grew up believing that women should have equal opportunities,” he said. “We’re coming to understand that if men do not have equal opportunities to be caregivers, women will not have equal opportunities in the workplace.”

Now Levs works with organizations and corporations to help build policies that support men as caregivers. Part of his work includes dispelling stereotypes of dads caring for their children. His organization found that the average working father on an average workday spends about three hours caring for his children, according to a 2008 Families and Work Institute National Study of the Changing Workforce. Almost all dads care for their children in every major category at least several days a week when they live with their kids, according to a 2013 CDC study titled “Fathers’ Involvement With Their Children.”

“When we take away the stereotypes and replace them with facts,” said Levs, “suddenly you have no choice but to discover that the people saying these backward things are wrong.”

Around the country, men’s stories about paternity leave still vary greatly.

“I got no time off. Even when I hear it today, I’m like male paternity leave,” said Mike Bunton, a father. “OK, that’s definitely some new s***.”

Doug Davis, a father of two said: “In my household most of the roles are reversed this time. I do a lot of the childcare right now. … And my family has had a bit of ‘are you comfortable with the fact that you’re not working right now and she is?’”

Jose Medina said, “I initially envisioned being a father as being more like the vice president to the mom’s president. ...You be there and smile, nod and wave. ... Now I understand it’s not a secondary role, but it’s a partnership.”

When my daughter was born, I only had three days off — but that was 17 years ago. And although Levs has pioneered the fight for equal parental-leave rights, there is much more work to be done.

We have to normalize the practice of allowing fathers as much time as they need to care for their children without the stigma attached to paternity leave. Companies have to revamp both their policies and their cultures to create workplaces that embrace childcare for both parents. It's the right thing to do for everyone.