For most couples, the birth of their first child is an experience that will never be forgotten. Not only does it open up a whole new world of responsibilities at home, but it can radically alter their careers. Paternity leave, maternity leave, parental leave are all terms bandied about without many people understanding the distinctions between them.
For John and Jillian Anderson, the birth of their first child meant the usual re-examination of their lives and their plans for the next 20 years.
In fact, as John looked down at John Junior, he wondered what the future held for them all. When his wife had announced she was pregnant, they had both been over the moon; until they started to do the figures. Jillian earned about $10,000 a year more than he did, and the loss of that extra income looked to be a big problem.
They had been reasonably smart and saved up a bit of cash, and they’d both been sinking extra amounts into their home loan for a couple of years, so they had a bit of breathing space. But, babies are costly creatures, and John knew that they couldn’t last long without more money coming in. And, Jillian’s wage paid for a lot more than his did.
When Jillian had discovered that she was pregnant, John started hoarding his annual leave. He already had about five weeks owing to him. Then, one day he overheard a conversation in the lunchroom about the “time off for family reasons” that a number of working fathers had been taking where he worked. He and Jillian had done the sums and realised that they could afford to meet their debts on one wage, but that the costs of babysitters and daycare and such things were prohibitive.
So, here he was, looking after John Junior, using a combination of time off and parental-leave options. They had made sure that they had filled out the proper forms, although the differences in company policy for men and women had caused them a hiccup. John had almost missed letting work know he wanted the time 10 weeks before because he had been subconsciously planning on doing everything at the same time as Jillian.
Luckily, one of his mates had mentioned the discrepancies and given him a chance to beat the deadline. Although, why his employer needed six more weeks notice than his wife’s escaped him. They had given him the standard explanation about federal legislation and pointed out that his wife’s intentions were more obvious; but, still, he was peeved at the discrimination.
Still, they’d gone ahead and signed the statutory declaration, confirming that they didn’t intend to take parental leave at the same time.
Then, little John had been born and they were over the moon.
Jillian had only been able to take the 12 weeks paid maternity at half pay before resuming her job and getting the coffers back into the black. In many ways, John resented that he couldn’t take time off for parental leave at the same time as Jillian. He wanted to be there for those first months as much as she was. So, for the first three weeks, he’d taken annual leave; the loading helped.
But, then, he was back at work, while Jillian stayed home with JJ.
Most nights John would come home from work exhausted, only to find that Jillian was just as bushed. His own experience later showed him how much work taking care of a child is. He honestly tried to have dinner ready and to make sure they got to bed at a reasonable hour; although John Junior had his own ideas about that. A couple of times during those first months, when he was back at work after the birth, John had almost made some catastrophic errors from sheer tiredness. One day he had even had to take a “sickie” because he just wasn’t able to face going to work after a particularly tough night.
Still, he was luckier than poor old George. George’s wife had fallen pregnant just before he was made redundant at his old work. Luckily, he had quickly found a new job at John’s workplace. Unfortunately, he didn’t meet the 12-month continuous employment provision, so he had been forced to dig into his limited annual leave to give his wife a few days break here and there.
At least John had had the opportunity to take a bit of time off to enable him to bond with his son. And, he had a secure job to go back to and the promise of an income, even if he wasn’t earning anything while on unpaid paternity leave.
Flicking on the television, John caught the tail end of a news story about British Prime Minister Tony Blair being urged to take some time off after the birth of his fourth child. While his wife was publicly in favor of the PM taking a break, a poll by one of the London newspapers found that 57% of Britons thought that he shouldn’t take the time off just because his wife had had a child.
John thanked his lucky stars that both his and Jillian’s employers allowed paid parental leave at all. He had heard stories from his parents and some of the older people he knew at work about the days when paternity and maternity leave were solely at the discretion of the employer.
Until John Junior was born, John hadn’t no idea of the impact having children has on your working life. While his parental-leave allowances covered the early part of John Junior’s life, there were plenty of other times when parents needed to take leave for their children: school carnivals, sick days, school holidays; all would help consume his own annual leave for the next 15 or 20 years.
John’s work colleague Euan hadn’t had a holiday for himself in almost three years. He always co-ordinated his leave with the school holidays, and his time was usually split between taking the kids camping and going on trips around the countryside to show them Australia.
John had seen Euan come back to work after two weeks off looking worse than when he had left.
John’s sister Jackie – the black sheep of the family – had fallen pregnant in her late teens. With poor school marks and no career history, she hadn’t been able to find a full time job, and instead worked Friday and Saturday nights as a casual at a fast-food chain. With no father to help ease her financial difficulties, Jackie needed the security of her job to keep her unit and to pay for the groceries. Luckily, the fast-food chain had extended the right to parental leave to all casual staff a couple of years ago.
John had noticed a big change in Jackie’s approach to work. Her previous “this is just a job” approach had gone and she now felt a commitment to the company. Now, Jackie was thinking about a lifetime working for the company. Not only did she feel indebted to them, but as she gradually increased her hours, she was even looking at management options with them.
John felt that employers who didn’t examine their attitudes towards parental leave were missing many opportunities. Given the increasing amount of hours being worked and the number of double income families, where both parents had to work and raise a family, he felt that employees were being undervalued. In many companies, his own included, the federal legislation’s minimum requirements were the maximum benefit employees were allowed. He knew of people who had considered resigning because it would be easier to take a payout and find a new job than to take unpaid leave but have a job guaranteed when they came back.
As he finally settled John Junior to sleep, he wondered what the next generation would think about the importance of family and how they would balance career and life.
Is John right to feel discrimination in the differences in requirements for maternity and paternity leave? Should management be more flexible with the requirements of the federal legislation? What options did George have? Can organisations’ approaches to parental leave be used to keep staff, as in Jackie’s case? Can organisations help balance people’s working and personal lives?
Proposed Solution #1
Ian George has been a management-planning consultant for the past 12 years in both the public and private sectors. He has been involved in advising on workplace organisation and project design. Previously, over 15 years, he held several senior management positions in large semi-government enterprises. Prior to that, he researched and designed training
programs for science-based industries.
The birth of a child will have a lasting impact on your social, financial and career aspirations, not to mention your sleep patterns. Furthermore, the event immerses you in a learning experience that overshadows anything that you encountered at college or university. To survive parenthood, you have no choice but to fine tune your planning, decision-making and problem-solving skills.
John and Jillian suffered a shock when John Junior moved in. Am I unfair in suggesting that the weakness was a lack of planning and preparation? John seems to have discovered his parental-support entitlements by accident, through informal contacts with workmates.
The present model of parental support is weak and is open to many accusations of discrimination because it is a best-fit model and is aimed at only one section of the workforce: employees like John and Jillian, with secure jobs in financially sound, mature organisations. The model completely ignores whole sectors of the workforce, as George discovered.
Why is the model so weak? Take a look at the micro-world of its architects; it may give you some clues. The architects are parliamentarians, public servants, union representatives, professional advisers, and stakeholder representatives, all of whom, like John and Jillian, have reasonably secure jobs in financially sound, mature organisations. Is it reasonable to suggest that the architects develop and champion models that fit their experience of the workplace?
Although John is probably right to believe that he has been discriminated against, perhaps he should just be grateful for the support that he has received.
Significant numbers of employees do not work for organisations with financial buffers able to absorb the ideal levels of maternity and paternity provisions. These employees may be self-employed, home based, or work in small businesses; others survive on casual or seasonal work. Their “employers” struggle with the pressures of compliance and reporting.
These organisations operate overdrafts and survive on week-by-week cashflows. And, the sector to which they belong is rapidly expanding because larger businesses now increasingly outsource goods and services. The larger businesses have transferred an inventory problem to this sector, leaving it sensitive to economic downturn. Many of these immature organisations have no contingency arrangements and fold after a year or two.
So, we have organisations that are fat, others that are starving, and the full range between. The parental support system works only for the first. There is probably room for many organisations to be more liberal in the interpretation of parental support; but, for others, it would be unrealistic.
George had an unlucky timing with a redundancy. Presumably he was in one of the financially starved organisations. However, a model exists that may have supported George and his wife. Rather than persisting with the clumsy paternity/ maternity benefit that helps some and ignores others, why not have a guaranteed minimum provision for parental leave? And, let the parents select the nominated partner – male or female – that will handle the rearing of the offspring.
In today’s world, a child can find itself in the care of one or two parents. So, why not allocate the entitlement through the child and let the parents/guardians mix and match the financial grant and the leave entitlements? To reduce the discrimination John suffered, and to remove any unreasonable penalty on the employer, a fund could be established through a levy paid by all employers on a periodic per-employee basis. All entitlements would come from this fund.
Jackie was a little luckier than George because her employer displayed positive employee relations. No doubt their investment in supporting a casual employee has been returned and multiplied. An organisation with a policy that supports its staff beyond the minimum level is investing in itself; given that employees are often considered the most valuable asset.
Parents have always needed support systems. Grandparents used to be reliable backups, particularly during holidays and times of illness. But, times have changed. Today, many neighborhoods are empty during daylight hours. Creches and child-minding centres flourish and many schools offer pre-school breakfast services and after-school care. Grandparents flee the cities to enjoy their longer retirements. Community support systems are formalised and no longer free. Working parents can face monumental decisions when a child is too ill to go to school.
Employers are increasingly conscious of the need to retain talent and experience. Replacement is costly. Every employee who leaves an organisation contributes to its corporate amnesia. Thus, employers seek ways to bond employees to their jobs and to provide an environment that has support systems for their personal lives. One organisation provides a shopping service for its employees. Another provides pre-cooked evening meals. In others, the rules of attendance are relaxed to permit parents to work from home for some of the week or to stagger their starting and finishing times to be with their kids when needed.
Proposed Solution #2
Chas Cini has a varied background, including being a former human-resource manager and industrial relations practitioner. At present, he runs a small business specialising in helping workplaces with enterprise bargaining, industrial-relations and human-resource management. His qualifications are in human resources and arbitration and mediation. He is in the process of completing a Graduate Diploma in Conflict Management at the University of South Australia.
Having a “family friendly” workplace is not just about helping employees with family responsibilities. Workplaces also need to take into account the reality that we all have personal lives and need a healthy lifestyle.
Family-leave provisions appear in federal and state legislation. Industrial awards, enterprise agreements, Australian workplace agreements, policies and procedures are required to recognise those provisions as minimum standards.
Discriminatory practices on the ground of gender are illegal. A workplace with policies that require a different period of notice for paternity leave than for maternity leave is likely to be found to be discriminatory. The Workplace Relations Act (1996) prescribes the same period of notice for both. State equal-opportunity legislation may also be breached if different periods of notice are required from males than from females.
John has a right to feel discriminated against if he is required to give 12 weeks’ notice while his wife is only required to give six weeks. When drafting workplace policies, the intent of any legislation or industrial instruments must be observed.
Several options were available to George. First, he could contact the human-resources manager, the relevant government office, or a solicitor or the union to find out what his rights are. If the workplace is friendly towards its employees’ family commitments, then approval might be given for leave without pay. As paternity leave (apart from a week) is unpaid, George’s financial position would be the same as if he qualified for paternity leave. The week’s paid paternity leave may be substituted with pro-rata annual leave; so, again, he would not be financially disadvantaged.
Australian Bureau of Statistic figures reveal that 45% of the workforce is made up of females, with just under half working part time. It is estimated that the number of women working part time has increased by 37% over the past 10 years. As a result, child-care facilities have steadily increased in number, with some workplaces providing their own. Others help parents with their family responsibilities by allowing the employee to work from home.
Succession planning and job sharing also helps minimise disruption to productivity and is also likely to increase employee loyalty. Retention of staff reduces recruitment and training costs and increases staff morale. A happy employee is more likely to speak highly of an employer and work more productively.
Parents who are able to meet family commitments with the support of employers will feel more comfortable balancing work and family responsibilities.
A survey by the Office of the Employment Advocate found that, according to the employers who participated, their “family friendly” policies were driven by sound business practices. One important feature was found to be that the businesses arrived at arrangements that were cost neutral to them. In that study, flexible hours proved to be the most popular family-friendly provision amongst the interviewees.
Flexible hours have mutual benefits for employers and employees. The employer is able to:
- Maximise the use of their premises and equipment by lengthening the spread of hours over which staff can work their ordinary hours of work.
- Deliver improved customer service through the staggered starting and finishing times of employees.
- Retain good staff and those with expertise.
Employees are able to:
- Manage work commitments consistent with their lifestyles.
- Have control over starting and finishing times.
- Leave during the day to attend appointments, keep contact with child-care providers and schools, or attend to a sick child.
Some recent developments are good news for casual workers. A Federal decision has been handed down that makes available to casual employees parental leave after 12 months employment. NSW amended its legislation following the federal decision by reducing the two years qualifying period to one year for casuals to qualify for parental leave.
On December 14, 2001, the South Australian Industrial Relations Commission extended paternity and maternity leave provisions to casual employees who have completed 12 months employment with an employer. Ultimately, this will be available to a large proportion of SA’s 206,400 casual and part-time employees, who make up a third of the state’s workforce.