The Parental Leave (Amendment) Bill 2017 (the "Bill"), which extends the applicability and duration of parental leave, was passed by the Dail yesterday.

The Bill will now proceed to the Seanad where it must be passed before it is signed into law by the President. If enacted, the legislation will come into operation 3 months after its passing.

Proposed Amendments to Parental Leave

Currently, the Parental Leave Acts 1998 and 2006 entitle parents of, or persons acting in loco parentis to, children aged up to 8 years (or up to 16 years if the child has a disability or long term illness) to 18 working weeks (4 months) of parental leave in respect of each child.

The Bill proposes to extend the parental leave entitlement to 26 weeks (6 months) in respect of each child. If passed, the additional 8 weeks provided for under the legislation will be made available to those parents who have already availed of the existing 18 week entitlement.

The legislation increases the age of the child up to which parental leave can be taken from 8 years to 12 years.

Work Life Balance

The Social Democrats, the party which put forward the legislation, said that the aim of the Bill is to "help working families enjoy better work-life balance by permitting parents to spend more time caring for their children".

This move towards work life balance for families demonstrates Ireland's commitment to the European Pillar of Social Rights (the "Pillar"), a non-binding charter of rights proclaimed, and endorsed by Ireland, in November 2017. The Pillar states that "parents and people with caring responsibilities have the right to suitable leave, flexible working arrangements and access to care services. Women and men shall have equal access to special leaves of absence in order to fulfil their caring responsibilities and be encouraged to use them in a balanced way."

On an EU wide basis, in an attempt to deliver on the principles provided for in the Pillar, the European Commission (the "Commission") is formulating proposals for a Directive on Work Life Balance for Parents and Carers (the "Directive"). The objectives of the Directive are to improve access to work-life balance and to increase take-up of family related leave and flexible working arrangements by men. The aim is to improve working conditions for parents and carers which it is hoped will lead to high employment, earnings and better career progression for women.

According to a factsheet prepared by the Commission, in the EU, caring responsibilities are currently reasons for unemployment for almost 20% of woman, but only 2% of men. Further, approximately 31.5% of women work part-time as opposed to 8.2% of men, which according to the Commission, is especially the case for those with children.

The provision of work-life balance to parents is considered by the Commission to be an essential step in addressing this under representation of women in the labour market.

The Directive proposals suggest an increase to the age of children in respect of which an employee can take parental leave from 8 to 12 years, indicating an influence of the Directive proposals on the Bill.

Payment of Parental Leave

A further Directive proposal is the requirement to compensate parents on parental leave at least at the level of sick pay.

Ireland is currently one of only 6 EU member states which does offer paid parental leave. The State does not provide any benefit to employees during parental leave and employers do not typically pay employees during this period.

In the Program for a Partnership Government, the Government committed to providing paid parental leave in the first year of a child's life. The Government have set up an interdepartmental working group (the "Group") to develop proposals for the introduction of a paid parental leave scheme. The Irish Times have reported that the paid parental leave will be announced in this year's budget, commencing with two weeks' paid parental leave, with further increases expected year on year.

Conclusion

The extension of parental leave under the Bill could be perceived as imposing further burdens on employers in terms of resourcing requirements. David Stanton TD has stated the administrative and cost burden on employers, particularly SMEs, could be disproportionate.

However, the Commission envisages that supporting a work life balance for parents in this way will benefit businesses in the long run. Having more women in the workforce increases the available talent pool, thereby addressing skill shortages. It better enables business to attract and retain workers and increases productivity as workers are more likely to be motivated.

Perhaps, therefore, a long term view should be taken on the merits of the Bill, if enacted.