Parental leave: where have we got to?
CIPD Ireland welcomes improvements that help employees better balance work and family commitments, however the complexity and differing rules that apply to different parenting leave entitlements is a worrying development. Overall the 2019 parental leave changes will increase bureaucracy and not necessarily result in increased flexibility in how parents choose to manage their time off.
Current changes include increasing the number of weeks parental leave, the child’s age and the introduction of paid parental leave on a restricted basis. In the short term, it will be increasingly difficult to be clear on individual employee entitlements and be compliant. For starters, is your parental leave record keeping in order?
From 1 September 2019, a parent can take up to 22 working weeks of unpaid parental leave, an extra four weeks on top of the previous 18 weeks. There will be a further four-week extension to 26 weeks from 1 September 2020. The age of a qualifying child increases from eight years to reaching the age of 12 years. And any parent who has already availed of their entitlement to 18 weeks parental leave will be entitled to benefit from the extra weeks for each eligible child.
The much-heralded paid parental leave begins in November 2019, with two weeks leave for any parent of a baby born after that day, once taken within 52 weeks of the birth and the employee has 12 months service. This leave brings a right to a Parental Benefit of €245 per week, and the number of weeks will increase to seven by 2021.
Is it working?
Is the Government achieving what it set out to do when introducing parental leave - to give parents the right to take unpaid leave from employment to allow them to take care of their children?
Uptake on parental leave remains low and has predominantly been taken by women. Loss of income is cited as the primary reason for the low uptake, and questions around commitment to work impact on women’s careers and pay when they take time out for family or work part-time. Even the introduction of two weeks paid paternity leave in 2016 for new fathers only had a take-up rate of 40%.
An analysis of the gender pay gap in Ireland clearly shows that women with children are most at risk of experiencing a widening gender pay gap, so challenging perceptions and embedding flexible working for all the workforce are important actions for employers. However, the current developments bring a host of different rules and will not necessarily enhance opportunities for flexibility to deal with family and caring responsibilities. The Government’s Future Jobs Strategy for Ireland (2019) identified that flexible working solutions were needed to foster participation in the labour force, yet the fragmented approach to varying leave entitlements restricts this.
As a result of parental leave, employers have to revise and communicate new polices while dealing with issues of resourcing, calls for top-up payments and bureaucracy. Many large organisations make a salary top-up for those on paid maternity, adoptive and paternity leave, creating pressure on SMEs, but we have yet to see the approach around paid parental leave.
Records to clarify what parental leave a parent has already taken for each child will be needed for both current and former employees. This could go back 10 years!
Is it enhancing equality?
In terms of entitling parents to time off, to take care of a child, that has certainly extended in recent years. By 2021, a mother could, if she could afford it, take up to 75 weeks parenting leave, plus about eight weeks to cover public holidays and annual leave. Similarly, a father’s leave entitlement will have grown from the initial 14 weeks provision in 1998 to 35 weeks in 2021, of which nine will be paid.
While an overall equality agenda is pushing this, one of the current drivers is the new EU Directive on work-life balance for parents and carers agreed in June 2019. The elements of the directive are being put in place in Ireland, limited paid parental and paternity leave, carer's leave and the right for parents and carers to request flexible working arrangements on return to work.
Across the board, employees now seek a more individualised relationship with their employer, built around personal needs, career ambitions and life stage, and many employers are seeking options to support this. Often flexible and remote working can deliver this, as can shorter hours, but the rules for many parenting leaves, eg maternity, paternity and paid parental leave, work against it. Along with the Government’s focus on better work life balance for parents, the impact on employers and on other employees who do not have young children have yet to be adequately considered.