Paternity leave is in hands of employers, not fathers

 

With no entitlements to paternity leave, many fathers find it worthless as it is unpaid, writes Laura Slattery

New fathers in the Republic have no entitlement to paternity leave, either paid or unpaid. Some employers do provide a few days' paid paternity leave but others require that male staff use part of their annual leave entitlement if they want to spend time with their newborn.

A working group set up to review the Parental Leave Act 1998 has made a majority recommendation that employees should have a statutory entitlement to three days' paternity leave, paid for by employers.

Under the agreed Programme for Government between Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats, the Government says it will "strengthen the parental leave scheme in line with the recommendations of the social partners".

Fathers will also benefit if the Government makes amendments to legislation introducing recommendations made by the working group reviewing Maternity Protection Legislation.

Last year, the working group recommended that mothers be paid for time off work to attend a full set of ante-natal classes and that fathers be paid for time off to attend two classes immediately before the birth.

Fathers and their families in some EU states get a better deal, particularly in Scandinavia. In Finland, fathers are paid a paternity allowance for up to 18 days. In Denmark, fathers receive 14 days' paid leave, while in Sweden they can receive temporary parental benefit for 10 days. From April 2003, workers in Britain will be entitled to two weeks' paid statutory paternity leave at a rate of £100 sterling (€155) per week, funded by the state.

Irish fathers currently depend on the discretion of their employer when it comes to making arrangements to take time off work after the birth or adoption of their child.

For example, the civil service grants male employees three days' paid paternity leave, while male employees at Eircom may choose to use a period of five days' paid domestic leave during this time.

But fathers who want to spend more time with their families can avail of parental leave.

Both parents are entitled to take unpaid parental leave of up to 14 weeks for each child under the age of five, as long as they have one year's service with their employer. If employees have more than three months' service, they are entitled to leave on a pro rata basis.

People working in the construction industry may struggle to secure parental leave, according to the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU), as they often switch employers when they move from site to site.

This means that they often don't achieve the one-year service requirement despite being in constant employment.

Employees are not entitled to take more than 14 weeks in any 12-month period, except in the case of multiple births. They must also apply for the leave in writing six weeks in advance of taking it. In the case of a family emergency, employees are entitled to take force majeure leave of up to three days in any 12-month period. This type of leave is paid.

Although parental leave is open to both the father and the mother, women account for 84 per cent of people taking it up, according to research conducted by MORI MRC in 2001. Parental leave may not be transferred from one parent to the other, so a couple cannot decide that one parent will take 28 weeks' parental leave and the other none.

Union representatives claim it is unaffordable for workers on low to middle incomes because it is unpaid.

"Parental leave is a legal right but, without payment, it's not really worth the paper it's written on," says Ms Joan Carmichael, assistant general secretary of ICTU. "Research has shown that one of the main barriers to take-up of parental leave is the cost. People who take their full entitlement lose a quarter of their income."

The working group reviewing the Parental Leave Act 1998 has made a majority recommendation that parental leave should attract payment for the existing 14 weeks. The total period of leave should increase to 18 weeks, with the last four weeks unpaid.

"Payment will help make it a real choice and give flexibility to people," says Ms Carmichael.

Both paid parental leave and the recommended three days' paid paternity benefit would give statutory recognition to the father's role in taking care of their new babies.

Paid parental leave will benefit couples where the mother wants to return to employment after maternity leave.

She may choose to use her period of parental leave directly after maternity leave but the option will be there for the father to use his period of leave at this time instead.

Paid parental leave will postpone the need for the couple to make childcare arrangements.

Other recommendations made by the working group reviewing the Parental Leave Act include increasing the maximum age of the child in respect of whom the leave is being taken to eight years, or 16 in the case of children with disabilities.

It is also recommended that employees should be entitled to take parental leave in separate blocks, with each block consisting of a minimum of six continuous weeks. Currently employees may only break up their leave entitlement if their employer agrees.

One company that says it has a flexible attitude to parental leave is insurance company Royal & Sun Alliance. Each case is assessed individually with the employee accommodated in the majority of cases, according to Ms Sandra Smith of the company's human resources department. An employee might not want or be able to afford to take a 14-week block of unpaid parental leave and may instead choose to take just Mondays off and use up their entitlement that way.

Not every worker has an understanding employer. "A lot of people haven't been able to afford to take parental leave and, if they could afford to take it, they sometimes had problems with their employers allowing them to take it in a manner suitable to them," says Ms Rosheen Callender, national equality secretary at SIPTU.