Wirehouses and their parent companies have updated their parental leave policies in recent years, giving more generous time off for parents and, at least at first glance, making them gender neutral.

But some of the new policies have continued to categorize leave-taking employees as either primary or secondary caregivers, and the secondaries are permitted shorter leave time.

Some of the revised policies consequently have deterred fathers from taking their leave days, particularly when their spouses also take their leave days, according to Peter Romer-Friedman, a plaintiff lawyer who represents clients who tentatively settled for $5 million in a parental leave class action lawsuit against JPMorgan Chase.

That lawsuit alleged the bank had gender-biased policies against men because its policies in effect offered them less parental leave than mothers — 11 weeks less, until the bank revised its policies in 2016.

The named plaintiff in the lawsuit, Derek Rotondo, a global security investigator, alleged in May 2017 that when he talked to Chase’s human resources department about a leave application, he received a written message that “per our policy, birth mothers are what we consider as the primary caregivers.” Rotondo would qualify as primary caregiver only if his wife returned to work before 16 weeks or was medically barred from childcare, Chase HR allegedly told him.

While engaged in settlement talks with the Rotondo plaintiffs, Chase changed its policies again in 2017 to remove gender-specific language and clarify that fathers could be regarded as primary caregivers.

As part of the proposed settlement, Chase has pledged to train its HR employees to not presume fathers are not primary caregivers.

But employers “need to go beyond making policies gender neutral,” argues Romer-Friedman, who is counsel in the Washington, D.C. office of Outten & Golden. “If you are going to have primary and non-primary distinction, you have to do a really good job of explaining the program and make sure people know that your spouse can be at home too.”

Romer-Friedman adds: “I think the ideal policy is that you give enough weeks to everybody; you can just make it as simple as that.”

If employers allow parents to decide on their own when and how to use their allotted parental leave time — together, alone, continuously or intermittently — that flexibility bestows potential health benefits, specifically for new mothers, according to a study released this month by the National Bureau of Economic Research and authored by Stanford University economics and medical school professors.

Such “flexibility reduces the risk of the mother experiencing physical postpartum health complications and improves her mental health,” write the authors, Maya Rossin-Slater from the medical school and Petra Perrson from the economics department.

“Our results suggest that mothers bear the burden from a lack of workplace flexibility — not only directly through greater career costs of family formation, as previously documented — but also indirectly, as fathers’ inability to respond to domestic shocks exacerbates the maternal health costs of childbearing," the two academics write.

“We want to put the agency on how to use caregiver leave with the family,” says Rossin-Slater. “There are days when it’s really useful to have another adult in the home. And letting families decide that on their own in a way that suits their needs has maternal benefits.”

The subjects of the Stanford professors’ study were Swedes. In 2012, Sweden reformed its laws, allowing fathers to take up to 30 days as needed in a child’s birth year, even if a mother remained on leave. That reform gave Rossin-Slater and her co-author before and after time periods to investigate. They found that as a result of the reforms, mothers’ anti-anxiety prescriptions dropped by 26%; maternal hospitalizations and visits to specialists decreased by 14%; and antibiotic prescriptions dropped by 11%.

Closer to home, financial advisors at Morgan Stanley, UBS, Bank of America’s Merrill Lynch, and Wells Fargo have all revised parental leave policies in recent years.

UBS’s policies allow, as of January this year, 20 weeks for a primary caregiver and four weeks to the “non-primary” caregiver. The UBS policies also appear to avoid any potential bias against fathers who choose to categorize themselves as primary caregivers.

“Our policy is gender agnostic,” says a UBS spokesperson. “We do not ask about the status of a caregiver’s partner to determine primary or secondary status. We accept our employee’s request.”

At Bank of America, the company’s parental leave policies are “industry leading,” a company spokesperson writes an email.

The parent company of Merrill Lynch allows up to 16 weeks of paid leave, with an additional 10 weeks of unpaid leave. BofA doesn’t ask employees to identify as primary or non-primary caregivers, making no distinction between the two categories. Employees also have flexibility on when to start parental leave -- any time within the first 12 months of the new child’s arrival. The spokesperson notes that “40% of parental leaves at the company have been taken by men.”

At Wells Fargo and Morgan Stanley, spokespersons also stressed that their policies are “gender neutral.”

“Our program is gender neutral,” a Wells Fargo spokesperson writes in an email. The company allows 16 weeks of paid leave for primary caregivers and four weeks for non-primary caregivers.

Asked if management asks about the status of a caregiver’s partner to determine primary or non-primary status of the employee, the Wells Fargo spokesperson responded: “Not management per se but the request goes through HR.”

Morgan Stanley’s programs and policies “have been designed to support a family-friendly work environment,” a spokesperson for the wirehouse writes in an email. “Our paid paternal leave policy does not distinguish between male and female employees in the definitions of primary and non-primary caregiver.”

Morgan Stanley allows 16 weeks of paid leave for primary caregivers and four weeks for non-primary caregivers, the same as Wells Fargo. The Morgan Stanley spokesperson didn’t address the question of how the firm determines if an employee qualifies as the primary or non-primary caregiver.