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ASK ANY WORKING parent whether they’d be happy to take unpaid leave from their job to spend more time with their children, and the response is usually an enthusiastic ‘yes – if I could afford it!’
The reality is that with the high cost of childcare, the option of one parent – let’s face it usually the mother – taking time off work to cover school holidays or such can actually make economic sense for many families.
At the moment, working mums and dads are entitled to four months (18 weeks) of unpaid leave up to when a child is eight years of age, without their employment rights being affected.
The 18 weeks of unpaid leave per child can be taken in one continuous period or in separate blocks of a minimum of six weeks to cover, say summer school holidays.
Provided your employer agrees, you can separate your unpaid leave into periods of days or even hours – so you could work a four-day week or reduce the length of your working day to better fit with the school schedule.
For some, 18 weeks of unpaid leave per child up to the age of eight may seem generous. But the reality is that it is the bare minimum required under EU law.
Two extra months
The Parental Leave (Amendment) Bill by the Social Democrats seeks to extend it to 26 weeks, or six months. It will go before the Dáil today and the government has said it will not oppose it.
Every single working mother that I have spoken would welcome this time extension. The flexibility that the extra two months provide cannot be underestimated.
This is not just about better work-life balance. It’s also about encouraging women to remain in the workforce. The fact is that for some women, there is little financial gain from returning to work after the birth of a child. For this very reason, some women decide not to return to work. Others do return to work, not because they want to, but simply to hold on to their job.
So that extra bit of time can help with an easier transition from being a full-time mammy on maternity leave, to returning back to work full-time. It also helps employers hold onto women workers, whilst reducing absenteeism and boosting productivity. For fathers too, it means there’s an option of spending more time with their children.
‘The government has dilly-dallied’
Working parents are under constant pressure to do the best for their children whilst also holding down jobs to pay the bills.
Of course, unpaid leave isn’t a silver bullet. The countries with the most family friendly working arrangements for parents incorporate both lengthy periods of paid leave with extensive periods of unpaid leave or leave on reduced pay. Ireland is very much an outlier in Europe in that we have neither.
The average length of the combined maternity and parental leave among EU countries is 97.8 weeks. In Ireland, the maximum amount is just 60 weeks.
For fathers, and even after the recent introduction of paternity benefit, it’s still only 20 weeks.
The fact is that Ireland is one of the worst countries when it comes to both parental leave payments as well as the length of parental leave.
The government has dilly-dallied on this important issue, waiting to be told what to do by Europe rather than doing anything proactive. The official position is that the government plans to introduce parental leave payments, but there is still no budget for this, no legislation and no definite timeline.
That is why the Parental Leave (Amendment) Bill 2017 focuses on unpaid parental leave – you might say it’s a question of baby steps.
Jennifer Whitmore is the Social Democrats Spokesperson for Children and Wicklow County Councillor.