In the last couple of days, it’s been reported that only a minority of fathers are availing of their right to take paternity leave – less than 1 in 4. This has generated a great deal of interest and, among other things, it has been suggested that the Minister for Social Protection should consider making the taking of leave mandatory.
Paternity leave was introduced in Ireland with effect from September 2016, so the legislation is still in its infancy. In comparison with maternity leave, paternity leave is a reasonably modest benefit – the male parent is only entitled to two weeks’ consecutive leave to care for their child. It isn’t confined to newborn children; adopting male parents are equally entitled to the leave, which must be taken post-birth/adoption and within 26 weeks.
In contrast, maternity leave has been available for decades – the Maternity Protection of Employees Act, 1981 introduced the concept of maternity leave into Irish law. In 1981, only 14 consecutive weeks of maternity leave were allowed; this was subsequently extended to the present period of 26 weeks (during which social welfare benefit is available) and an additional period of 16 weeks, which can be taken at the mother’s discretion, and during which social welfare is not payable.
There is no obligation on an employer to pay salary during paternity leave, and the same is true of maternity leave. A parent taking paternity leave is entitled to paternity benefit of €235 per week; during the first 26 weeks of maternity leave, a female employee is entitled to the same payment.
It’s not entirely clear why fathers are not availing of their paternity leave entitlements although something that has not received much attention in the present debate is that this shouldn’t actually come as a surprise. A limited uptake of discretionary leaves is not unusual in Ireland. Look no further than parental leave, which has never been especially popular.
Parental leave was introduced nearly ten years ago in 1998 and is available to parents of both sexes. The periods allowed are very generous – 18 weeks per child – but parental leave is still the exception rather than the rule; parents, including fathers, simply don’t avail of it. As well as that, it’s also interesting to note that the level of take up of the additional 16 weeks of maternity leave is also comparatively low – around 41%.
In other words, concerns expressed in the last few days about the low level of parents taking paternity leave is nothing new – one need look no further than the comparatively low level of take up of the other types of benefit to identify a pattern. Recent coverage suggests that the low level of benefit available to parents taking these leaves acts as a significant incentive. The example of paternity leave is really only the latest example of this.
It’s also interesting to contrast paternity benefits in Ireland with the position in the UK and mainland Europe. France allows for two weeks of paternity leave on full pay, subject to a monthly ceiling of €3,269; Italy, in contrast, only allows for two days at full pay. In Germany, there is no statutory entitlement to paternity leave at all. In the UK, paternity benefit is only €160 a week.
Ireland’s paternity entitlements, therefore, both in terms of length and amount of benefit, are not especially ungenerous in comparison with the rest of the EU. That said, if only a minority of fathers ever avails of the leave, it’s questionable what benefit it actually adds.
It’s comparatively easy for the State to make legislative provision for a benefit; it’s obviously considerably more difficult to give that benefit real teeth if there’s a clear economic disincentive to taking the leave in the first place.
On the other hand, a legislative initiative forcing employers to pay employees during periods of special leave would be singularly unpopular among employers, probably deservedly so. The alternative would be to dramatically increase the amount of State-sanctioned benefit but one could not raise this in isolation; were paternity benefit to increase, the State would likely have to increase maternity benefit concurrently (and possibly the other forms of leave as well).
All in all, the State can’t reasonably expect employers to pay for protracted periods in which they don’t receive services but at the same time, it can’t come as a surprise that a large number of employees simply can’t afford to take the leave in the first place. The legislation may be attractive in principle, and add to the impression that Ireland has a generous leave regime, but the reality may be quite different.