Jerry Cammarata, First Father To Receive Paternity Leave, Speaks Out -- And He Isn't Happy

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story said that Jerry Cammarata sued the New York City Board of Education and won a ruling from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in his pursuit of paternity leave. In fact, he had only considered those options before events overtook him. The headline and story have also been amended to recognize that Cammarata was not the first to win the legal right to paternity leave but the first to exercise that right. For the rest of the story and the key role played by the future congressman Gary Ackerman, click here.

In 1973, Jerry Cammarata was a young teacher and a new dad. He was also the first father granted paternity leave in the New York City school system -- the same that female teachers received -- but it didn't come easy.

Now he is the dean of student affairs at the Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine, as well as a former commissioner of the New York City Department of Youth and Community Development for Mayors Giuliani and Bloomberg. He is also an advocate for better family leave policies in the U.S. As Father’s Day approached, he answered some questions and gave his opinion about what such leaves could -- should -- look like.

Go back 40 years. What did the paternity leave landscape look like back then?
When my second daughter was born, I realized I was in a “rat race.” I was working all of the time and did not have the time I needed to spend with my children. During this period in the early 1970s, women’s liberation was a major story. I said, “Well, if it is good for a woman to be liberated, it has to be good for a man to be liberated, too, and take a stand to be with his children.”

At the time, the New York City Board of Education allowed women a four-year maternity leave (it has been significantly reduced since then.) I asked them for the same, since I was a teacher and wanted equal treatment. I was denied and I decided to go to court on the issue. Then the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)...decided to take on the issue.

The rest is history. The EEOC proceeded to set a policy mandating companies that provide maternity leave to also offer an equal paternity leave.

And that’s how I became the first father in America to receive legal paternity leave.

How have things changed?
The good news is there are improvements. States like New Jersey; Washington, D.C.; South Carolina and California have legislated paid leaves to workers. States like Connecticut, Oregon, Wisconsin, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Maryland have also taken steps to make them better places for dads and moms to raise kids.

What still needs to change?
First of all, we need federal legislation mandating that employers provide paid leaves as an extension of FMLA. Second, we must allow dads to continue to contribute to their 401ks while on leave. Third, we must also allow for the creation of “new dad bank accounts,” where money can be saved tax-free and used if a leave needs to be privately supported. Last, we must shift corporate culture from today’s outdated “live to work” mindset to a “work to live” mindset.

We famously lag behind the rest of the Western world when it comes to all family leave policy. What is it about American culture that creates this gap?
In America, our culture pushes a “live to work” attitude, whereas the cultures of south Asian and European countries follow a “work to live” attitude. These countries put a higher value on family, and understand that the father role model is as important as the mother. Common American culture, however, dictates that the most important role for a father is to provide for his family monetarily, while the mother is still considered the primary caretaker of the children. This is why taking paternity leave, and certainly unpaid paternity leave, remains a near taboo in this country.

What are the effects of the lack of leave, and the general "you are on your own" approach to all questions of parenting, on family structure in the U.S.?
There is a great deal of truth to “it takes a village to raise a child.” It takes our industries to help parents raise their children. It takes the work of such professionals as osteopathic physicians, who devote their practices to serving the family, to serve as role models. Caregivers and policymakers need to provide the kind of leadership and direction that helps parents raise their kids in the best way possible. And it takes our colleges and businesses to teach parenting by example, through policy and instruction.

In addition to the "up by your own bootstraps" culture, there is also the "we cannot afford this as a society" argument that is regularly used against more generous leave. Can we afford it?
We say we can’t afford it now. But it will cost more if we don’t make the investment now. Studies have shown, for example, that having an “at-home dad” can help boost a child’s school performance. And children who do well in school are obviously better prepared to help America compete in a demanding, global marketplace.

But we have the Family and Medical Leave Act. Isn't that good enough?
The FMLA -- which does provide a valuable safety net -- was adopted decades after my historic paternity leave case. Together, they represent progress. But more needs to be done to truly change American culture and the way it supports family life.

Is taking paternity leave the same "career risk" for men today as it was when you first brought your lawsuit?
When I won my landmark decision, I was one component within a swell of human rights activism in our country.

It’s not the same today, Nowadays, there is little talk about FMLA and paternity leave.

And, importantly, offering paternity leave is only half of the battle. The other half involves convincing fathers to take leave. This remains a challenge. Fathers can’t afford unpaid leave. Moreover, there is uncertainty over whether their jobs will still be there when they return.

What you are saying is that we treat this as an individual problem, and maybe a corporate-policy problem, but the answer is all that plus a change in law and culture?
Yes. Every dad should think about the nature and depth of his commitment to his family. He should evaluate the options provided by his employer and by FMLA.

But more than that we need to make sure that local, state and national legislators know the transcendent importance of family life. We should urge policymakers to give moms and dads more tools that would allow them to raise their kids together. One way to do this, for example, would be for employers to adopt shared work schedules.

Dads today have the opportunity to help trigger a new revolution that can position the family as a true centerpiece of American culture.