Attracting new mums back to work

Parental Leave

By Julia Stirling

There will be a collective sigh of relief when Australia’s long awaited first universal paid parental leave scheme comes into effect on January 1 next year.
The scheme offers 18 weeks’ leave at the national minimum wage (543.78 a week before tax).

Mairi Steele, acting director of Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency, says employers benefit because the scheme improves retention and long-term attachment to the organisation while reducing the cost of recruitment, replacement and training of new employees.

"Offering paid parental leave also helps attract women to the organisation. Of the organisations reporting to EOWA, those that currently provide paid maternity leave report a greater return-to-work rate than those organisations not providing paid leave," Steele says.

Women’s lives change dramatically while on parental leave and Steele says businesses need to make sure they offer women flexibility on their return to work, as they and their partners adjust.

"Businesses are supplementing their paid parental schemes with ‘keep in touch’ programs, so that women’s gap in corporate knowledge is reduced when they return; they are providing flexible working hours, reduced working hours and job-sharing opportunities on women’s return to work, and they are providing childcare information and centres to help women return to work.

"It is also very important to provide paid secondary carer’s leave and offer flexibility to partners so that there can be a more equal distribution of caring responsibilities. All of these things will provide an easier transition back to work for working parents," she says.

Angela D’Apollonio worked full-time as a senior manager with Savings & Loans in Adelaide, before she took 12 months’ parental leave on half pay. She also took advantage of the keep-in-touch program that allows staff on extended leave to have access to regular updated news and events from the credit union.

D’Apollonio says having a supportive manager who kept her in the loop on such things as mergers, changes in structures and staff roles was also important.

D’Apollonio returned to work in a different role as an internal auditor because the job was more suited to flexible work arrangements. She works three days a week, two of which are from home, and says accessing flexible arrangements was the key to her decision to return to work.

"I had built up some great knowledge throughout my career and didn’t want to lose that by being out of the workforce for a long time and missing out on changes in the industry. Financially, I didn’t need to return to work quickly and if I hadn’t been offered the chance to work from home some of the time, I doubt that I would have returned.

"I also felt like I needed some adult interaction. Being on parental leave means that most of your conversations are with other mums, and it’s good to be able to talk with people at work about something other than children," she says.

D’Apollonio advises new mothers to have a practice run with child care before returning to work.

"If you’re like me then you’ll have a million things going through your head at once, and it’s easy to get stressed before you’ve started. Allow yourself plenty of time to get ready in the morning, because your baby won’t necessarily want to keep to your schedule."

Cindy Leslie is an executive assistant at HSBC Bank Australia in Sydney. She returned to work after spending 12 months on parental leave (six months on half pay and six months unpaid).

She stayed in touch with colleagues by meeting for lunch and joining them at the end-of-year celebrations. She also had remote access and received group emails and bank information and stayed in touch with her manager.

She works four days a week and her daughter is cared for by her mother-in-law and attends creche two days a week. "My husband is a shift worker on a rotating shift, so every week our babysitting requirements change. I agreed with my manager that I would work a four-day week and be flexible with the day that I had off each week.

"Having this flexibility was critical for my family because childcare facilities are not flexible with days and there is only so much Nanna can do.

"I also need to leave work early on the days my daughter is in child care as the long daycare facility my daughter attends charges late fees at a rate of $2 per minute. So on the days I need to collect my daughter, I leave promptly at 4.30. It’s this sort of flexibility that was a major factor in my decision to return to HSBC," Leslie says.

The percentage of organisations reporting to EOWA that provide paid parental leave increased from 23.7 per cent in 2001 to 53.4 per cent in 2009. There is some concern, however, that organisations might replace their schemes with the government-funded scheme.

Families Minister Jenny Macklin says the government’s scheme is designed to complement existing entitlements. She says the government-funded parental leave pay cannot be substituted for existing employer-funded schemes.

"The government expects employers to maintain existing family-friendly workplace conditions. The Productivity Commission, the Business Council of Australia and the Australian Industry Group have all made it clear that they expect employers will maintain their voluntary paid parental leave schemes. Employers cannot absorb parental leave pay against existing employer-funded schemes and withhold parental leave pay owed to an employee.

"Employers who currently offer paid parental leave differentiate themselves as ’employers of choice’. Employers provide paid parental leave because it is good for their business and they benefit in the long term from increased workforce participation of parents and retention of skilled staff," Macklin says.

Macklin explains the government’s parental leave pay is not a leave entitlement but will complement parents’ entitlements, such as paid parental leave under their enterprise agreement or unpaid leave under the National Employment Standards.

"Under our scheme, parental leave pay can be received before, after or at the same time as employer-provided paid leave," Macklin says.

"Around one-third of employed women do not take 26 weeks leave after childbirth. The government’s scheme will allow a greater number of women than ever before to take six months off work and allow those already taking six months leave to have a longer absence from work."

Article from The Australian, July, 2010.

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