The Shared Maternity Leave and Benefit Bill 2018 was proposed in July 2018. It is a private members' bill but was unopposed by the government. The bill is still at an early stage but, if enacted, it would transform the potential entitlements of fathers, among others, to take time off following the birth of their child.
Currently, fathers are entitled only to two weeks' paternity leave following the birth of their child, while mothers are entitled to take a total of 42 weeks' maternity leave (26 weeks' ordinary maternity leave and 16 weeks' additional maternity leave). Mothers are entitled to state benefit during ordinary maternity leave, which is currently €240 per week. The same rate applies for paternity benefit.
The Shared Maternity Leave and Benefit Bill will allow pregnant employees to share ordinary maternity leave with a relevant parent. A 'relevant parent' is a person (other than the child's mother) who is the father of the child or the spouse, civil partner or co-habitant of the child's mother. This period of shared leave will be in addition to paternity leave entitlements.
The bill sets out that the entitlement's purpose is to enable the relevant parent to provide or assist in the provision of care or support to the mother. Therefore, the bill provides for relevant parents to avail of state maternity benefit during any period of shared leave. How this will work in practice is not entirely clear, but it has been stated that this will add no costs to the state.
Relevant parents would have to give four weeks' notice in writing to their employer before commencing a period of shared leave.
In addition to supporting mothers, the Shared Maternity Leave and Benefit Bill specifically addresses support for adoptive parents. The definition of 'relevant parent' provides for cases where a child is adopted. In such cases, the relevant parent is the spouse selected by the adopting couple. However, the bill does not currently provide for adoptive leave to be shared. A specific provision for shared adoptive leave will likely result if the bill progresses.
Employers in Ireland are not obliged to pay employees maternity leave. As a result, maternity pay rates vary greatly. When the Shared Maternity Leave and Benefit Bill was proposed, it was highlighted that parents would be able to consider the financial benefits of choosing how to allocate maternity leave. Generous employers could face the decision of whether to extend maternity pay to fathers (or other relevant parents) and those that choose not to could face discrimination claims. Where the law would stand in this regard remains unclear.
The Shared Maternity Leave and Benefit Bill illustrates a growing trend in Ireland towards equalling the burden and entitlements for parents. It has only passed the first stage and while the government has not opposed it, progress is likely to be slow. If the bill moves forward, employers will need to update their policies regarding maternity leave and consider how to treat those on shared maternity leave.
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