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  • Writer's pictureScott Behson

“Moments of Accommodation” An Interview with Major League Baseball on Paternity Leave

Paul Mifsud, Senior Counsel, Labor Relations for Major League Baseball was nice enough to speak with me about their paternity leave policy. One of Paul’s primary responsibilities is working with teams and the players on rules changes within the game of baseball, ranging from drug programs to instant replay to paternity leave. He’s also a busy working father of three. I greatly appreciate his time.

MLB All Star Home Run Derby 2013

In my opinion, MLB hit a home run with its paternity leave policy (Photo credit: gargudojr)

For the past few months, I’ve been reporting on players who use Major League Baseball’s Paternity Leave Policy and have repeatedly praised MLB for their high-profile support of working dads. Could you summarize Major League Baseball’s paternity leave policy?

Prior to the 2011 season, when Major League Baseball first implemented the Paternity List, most Clubs allowed players several days of paid leave upon the birth and adoption of a child, but were required to play short when the player was absent. The establishment of the Paternity List enables Clubs to replace players who are granted leave for a maximum of three days, while continuing to pay the players and maintain a full roster of active players during the leave period.

Prior to the implementation of the Paternity List, if a player was given a temporary leave of absence by his Club, the Club would either have to play short (if it wanted to continue paying the player) or put the player on the Restricted List (where the player would not accrue salary or service) to free up the roster spot. Over the past several years we have tried to make certain changes to the Major League Rules so that Clubs can continue to pay players and also not have to play short under circumstances where everyone agrees a leave of absence is appropriate. The Paternity List, like the Bereavement/Family Medical Emergency List implemented a few years earlier, was designed to simultaneously accommodate players’ off-the-field needs and Clubs’ on-field needs in certain areas.

Was there any particular incident or occurrence that led to this policy being explored or implemented? If so, can you tell us about it? If not, what was the impetus for putting this program in place?

There was no “Jackie Robinson” moment, or one particular incident that led our thinking. Even before there was a formal program, most Clubs were allowing players a few days off. The idea for a formal paternity leave policy came as an idea from the Clubs themselves.

I think most saw it as a natural extension of MLB’s bereavement list policy, which was enacted a few years earlier. Clubs didn’t want to penalize players in time of need so they devised a rule change to replace a player for a short period of time. In the case of a death in the family, we have a bereavement policy of up to one week and now, in terms of a birth, a 3-day paternity leave policy.

Within baseball, this has never been a controversial issue. Every year, we at MLB receive suggestions from the Clubs about changes we could make that would alleviate problems or improve things. These tend to get circulated around and discussed, and many of them get onto the agenda of our annual General Managers Meetings in November.

The Clubs voted on it without much controversy or discussion. The player’s union also okayed it without any controversy- of course this policy helps players and creates an opportunity for additional service time and Major League pay for the substitute players involved. So it really made sense for everyone involved, and was adopted.

In some ways, it shows even more progress that paternity leave was seen as a matter-of-fact kind of issue. Kind of like- “Of course, fatherhood is important, of course the Clubs want to support their player, and of course our league wants to help the Clubs support them”

I’d agree with that characterization.

About how many players have made use of the paternity leave policy since you implemented it? This season?

Since the implementation of the Paternity List prior to the 2011 season, we have nearly 70 placements, or about 20-25 per year. In fact, there have been two since we first exchanged emails last week (the Mets’ John Buck and the Blue Jays’ Munenori Kawasaki).

Nick and I LOVE baseball.

Nick and I LOVE baseball. It really is the ultimate father-son game.

What has the reaction to your paternity leave program been from the teams and players?

As far as we are aware, it was and has been universally accepted by Clubs and players alike. The only criticism we sometimes hear is when a Club puts a starting pitcher on the Paternity List on the day following a start, which effectively gives that Club an additional player on the Active List during a period of time that the Club would normally be sitting its starter. But, we have not seen abuse in this area.

Have you received any other reactions from those outside of baseball (other leagues, employers, government bodies, advocacy groups? Or just one crazy blogger)?

(laughing) Yeah, pretty much just you.

When Rangers pitcher Colby Lewis was the first to take MLB paternity leave, there was some debate in the media over whether such a leave was proper given the amount of money players make and the fact they work “only” seven months a year. What did you and others at MLB think about this initial resistance?

Honestly, we haven’t noticed much, if any, negative reaction.  And I think that’s a good thing.

 Just some of that love/jealousy relationship many of us fans have with pro athletes?

I suppose so.

The media reaction since that time has been either overwhelmingly positive or, even more encouragingly, has become rather “ho-hum so-and-so is taking leave, no big deal.” How do feel about today’s public and media reaction to paternity leave?

I agree that it is good that there is a matter-of-fact reaction to players taking paternity leave. This is a positive sign for our society and it shows that many really do understand the value of fatherhood.

While we appreciate the positive public reaction, this was never the reason we instituted paternity leave. We acted because we felt it was the right thing to do for our sport.

Jackie Robinson swinging a bat in Dodgers unif...

MLB takes its legacy of social responsibility seriously, following the legacy of Jackie Robinson (public domain photo)

I’ve done a lot of research and cannot find another major league sport that offers paternity leave. How do you and others at MLB feel about being pioneers?

We don’t wait for other leagues to act before we move. We really just try to do what is right for our Clubs and players.  On some other issues, we may have conversations with our colleagues in other leagues. But for paternity leave, we moved because we felt it was the right thing to do.

Also, baseball is unique in that it is an everyday sport with very few days off during the season, as compared to other pro sports. So, perhaps the need for things like paternity leave is more important for our league.

In such a long season, there’s more of a need for moments of accommodation for appropriate reasons.

Further, MLB has a history of taking its social responsibilities very seriously, going back to the legacy of Jackie Robinson. Paternity leave, bereavement leave and our new Workplace Code of Conduct about sexual orientation non-discrimination can be considered a part of this.

There have been other high-profile sports stories that have dealt with fatherhood and paternity leave. For example, pro golfer Hunter Mahan left a tournament he was leading to be with his wife at the birth of their daughter and NFL players Ben Roethlisberger and Charles Tillman both stated that they would miss a game for the births of their children (both player’s wives had their babies on non-game days).

Why do you think sports, in general, may be ahead of the national/corporate culture in terms of the importance of paternity leave and family involvement for dads, especially considering how male-dominated and macho pro sports are?

I think what we are seeing is that these decisions to value fatherhood are not as surprising anymore. This perhaps shows the recognition of the importance of being a dad and highlights what is important in life. As a father myself, I think this is terrific.

Most employers do not offer paid paternity leave, and most dads cobble together at best 1-2 weeks of accumulated personal time off upon a birth. Do you think that MLB’s paternity leave can have an effect on employers outside of baseball? Perhaps encouraging them to expand their policies?

We are always proud that we can make a positive social impact.  When my kids were born, my bosses were very supportive and I was able to take some time off. There are many companies that are progressive on this issue, and I am proud to say that we are on that side.

What do you think about paternity leave? about MLB’s policy? Let’s discuss in the comments section?

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