Thursday, November 7, 2019
The highly anticipated Parent’s Leave and Benefit Act 2019 has been signed into law and applies to the parents of all children born on or after 1 November 2019 – or in the case of adopted children, where the date of confinement is 1 November 2019 or later.
Parent’s Leave (not to be confused with the existing Parental Leave) will allow parents to take two weeks of leave during the first year after a child is born. It was introduced by the Government in line with a stated policy of gradually increasing the amount of time that working parents can spend with their young children.
When presenting the Act as a Bill in the Oireachtas, the Government pointed to countries such as Norway as an example of the benefits that can flow from parents being able to spend more time with their children: the Scandinavian model is often used as an example of the benefits that flow to both parents when the State actively encourages them to spend more time with their children, and incentivises them to do that.
As currently in force, Parent’s Leave in Ireland will allow new parents to take the leave in a block of a single week, or in two weeks (and it’s apparently intended that the level of Parent’s Leave will increase to 9 weeks at some point in the future). There is no obligation on employers to pay employees while they are on Parent’s Leave (this is already the case in respect of the other forms of child–related leaves; Maternity Leave, Paternity Leave, Parental Leave and Adoptive Leave). Parents will, however, be able to obtain a social welfare payment from the state, amounting to €245 per week.
Perhaps the most significant point to note in relation to Parent’s Leave is that it can be taken in addition to the level of leave already available. Female employees, for example, can take 26 weeks of basic Maternity Leave and 16 weeks of additional Maternity Leave. New fathers (or nominated partners in the case of a same–sex couple) are also entitled to take two weeks of Paternity Leave during the 26 weeks following birth.
All parents, in addition, are entitled to take 22 weeks of Parental Leave at any point before their child reaches 12 years of age (16 years where the child has a disability). Lastly, adopting parents are entitled to 24 weeks Adoptive Leave for the purpose of adopting a child.
All of this means that as of 2019, parents in Ireland have never had a greater entitlement to take time off work to spend with their children. In the period post-2016, in particular, parents’ rights to leave have increased considerably. The addition of Paternity Leave in 2016, the introduction of Parent’s Leave in 2019 and the expansion of Parental Leave from 18 to 22 weeks earlier this year have all contributed to this expansion in rights. In addition, it is planned that the level of Parental Leave will increase to 26 weeks with effect from September 2020.
The Government points to all of this as being indicative of a commitment to strengthening the rights of working parents, as well as strengthening the bond between parent and child. However, a key question is the degree to which these changes will actually make a practical difference to the lives of parents and children.
One of the key questions, in particular, is whether parents will actually avail of their entitlements in the first place. In the period following the introduction of Paternity Leave in 2016, for example, there was speculation as to whether fathers would actually apply for the leave in practice. That speculation was not misinformed: in 2018, only around one-third of eligible fathers availed of Paternity Leave. In addition, the takeup in respect of Parental Leave remains low.
Financial factors may play a role here – according to an IBEC study published recently, less than 50% of Irish employers “top up” paternity benefit received from the state. As referred to, employers are under no obligation to pay employees during periods of child-related leave. Some choose to do so (typically by “topping up” State benefit) but many do not.
It’s not difficult to envisage a similar situation arising in the case of Parent’s Leave. In fact, it may inevitably transpire that only a minority of parents will avail of their entitlement – as proved to be the case when Paternity Leave was introduced. Putting it in blunt terms, parents may not take Parent’s Leave because they simply cannot afford to do so.
This poses a dilemma for the State. It is unlikely that the introduction of a new form of child-related leave will be criticised in principle, but there may be an unavoidable gap between theory and practice. Addressing the economic costs of Parent’s Leave may be more challenging than introducing the leave in the first place.
For further information on the above, please contact Patrick Walshe.