Paid Parental Leave: The chance to catch up

Felicity McNeill, Community Lawyer, Community Law Wellington and Hutt Valley

A great many of Community Law Wellington and Hutt Valley’s clients are women and families on a low income. Some of these clients are also mental health consumers. The issue of paid parental leave, which affects all working parents regardless of income, is particularly important for low-income families and families facing health and mental health challenges. After consulting with the Post and Ante-Natal Distress Support Group Wellington and the Inner City Mental Health Liaison Group (a Wellington network of community organisations working in the mental health field), Community Law recently made a submission in support of the Parental Leave and Employment Protection (Six Months’ Paid Leave) Amendment Bill. The Bill proposes to extend paid parental leave from the current entitlement of 14 weeks to 26 weeks. (The Select Committee is not due to report back on the Bill until August 2013).

The campaign to provide better support for working parents gained real momentum in New Zealand over 25 years ago, with the enactment of the Parental Leave and Employment Protection Act in 1987. The Act introduced two changes: an increase in the duration of unpaid parental leave from 6 to 12 months, and extension of the right to apply to fathers as well. Paid parental leave did not exist, and was considered by many to be pie-in-the-sky (as many today no doubt view the current Bill before the House).

Community Law has an interesting historical link with parental leave and the law. Liz Tennet, now CEO of Community Law Centres o Aotearoa (CLCA), the national body which represents the country’s 24 Community Law Centres, was involved in the initial policy work on paid parental leave and strongly supported the idea of 12 weeks’ paid parental leave during her term as a Labour MP (1987-96). This work finally bore fruit when the Parental Leave and Employment Protection (Paid Parental Leave) Amendment Act 2002 was passed. In 2005, further amendments lengthened the duration of paid parental leave to 14 weeks. After those amendments, New Zealand’s parental leave compared favourably internationally. Today, however, New Zealand lags behind all but one developed nation (the United States) in the provision of paid parental leave. Over the past 25 years, Liz has maintained continual support for increases to paid parental leave and believes that the current Bill’s proposal of 26 weeks would provide much-needed support for families, bringing benefits to the health and well-being of new mothers and babies, and achieving greater income stability for families and gender equity in both the labour market and within families.

The current entitlement of 14 weeks’ paid parental leave covers the period immediately prior to and after the baby’s birth; up to 6 weeks can be taken before the baby’s expected due date (“EDD”). Not surprisingly, those we consulted said that the need to maintain the family income was the key reason for returning to work sooner than desired after the birth. Because most pregnant women are not able to continue working right up until their EDD, and some babies are born post-EDD, some working mothers have to return to work when their newborns are as young as 6 or 8 weeks old. The extension of paid parental leave would enable families, particularly women on lower incomes and who are dependent on the current 14 weeks’ paid parental leave, to be able to take more time off to bond with their baby.

The Wellington mental health community strongly supports this Bill, primarily because an additional three months’ leave, to form and strengthen the mother-infant attachment, correlates to improved mental health and well-being for both mother and child. Recent public health research supports this idea: “the development of a woman’s emotional attachment to her infant is closely linked to psychological adjustment and maternal mental health”.[1]

Stronger bonding has distinctive benefits for everyone. Parents gain a sense of personal achievement and intimacy, and mothers are at lower risk of post-natal depression, babies enjoy improved health. The first six months of a child’s life are critical; infants who are unable to develop a strong attachment with their parent in the early months are more likely to have developmental delays and to engage in anti-social and dysfunctional behaviours.[2]

Families Commissioner and the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor, Professor Sir Peter Gluckman, himself advocates strong mother-infant bonding: “The early years of life have a unique and formative impact on child health, development and relationships throughout life. Secure mother-infant attachment is an important predictor of resilience in later life including higher self-esteem, reduced anxiety and reduced hormonal responses to stress”.[3] It is not a difficult leap in logic to argue that supporting working mothers to stay home for longer with their newborn promotes better developmental outcomes throughout their children’s lives.

Through our consultation, we also found that those who cannot afford unpaid leave tend to commence their paid parental leave as close as possible to their EDD to maximise time with their newborn. Financial pressure means that women on low incomes tend to resist taking leave earlier, even when recommended by health professionals. Current legislation does not provide additional paid parental leave in situations where pregnant women are directed to be off work earlier for medical reasons. In such situations, women are left with a reduced amount of paid “parental” leave and less time to bond with their newborn.

Research shows that being able to take more time off work immediately before the birth of a baby reduces the likelihood of premature or low-weight babies. The complications associated with premature births are costly, and include developmental delays and difficulties throughout a child’s life. Those we consulted with also emphasised that a longer period of paid parental leave would provide flexibility in cases where a child is born with a disability or illness, or where the mother is seriously ill following the birth.[4]

Finally, those we consulted stressed the importance of breastfeeding for long-term health and mental health outcomes. More paid parental leave would enable working mothers to establish and maintain exclusive breastfeeding. Recent public health research has found that, despite flexible workplace law around breastfeeding, “it is [still] very difficult for women to breastfeed and be employed, [which is] attributable to insufficient provision of lactation breaks, a lack of privacy for the expression of breast milk, and insufficient employer support.”[5] An extension of paid parental leave would provide some ‘breathing space’ for working mothers to maintain breastfeeding, in the long-term reducing the occurrence and/or severity of infectious diseases, and improving overall health outcomes.

In our submission to the Select Committee we argued that there should be equality for all parents. Children should not be denied the best possible start in life because financial circumstances dictate parents having to return to work earlier than is either desired or appropriate, simply to make ends meet. Extending paid parental leave to 26 weeks would make staying at home an affordable reality, particularly for our vulnerable clients on low incomes.

[1] Amanda R Cooklin, Heather J Rowe and Jane R W Fisher “Paid parental leave supports breastfeeding and mother-infant relationship: a prospective investigation of maternal postpartum employment” (2012) 36(3) Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health 249 at 250.

[2] John Bowlby A secure base: parent-child attachment and healthy human development (Routledge, London, 2005) at 7.

[3] Peter Gluckman (2011) Improving the Transition, Reducing Social and Psychological morbidity during adolescence A Report from the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor, Wellington, May 2011.

[4] Sue Kell Associates Parental leave and Carers Leave: International Provision and Research (Department of Labour), 2006 at 18.

[5] Cooklin “Paid parental leave supports breastfeeding and mother-infant relationship: a prospective investigation of maternal postpartum employment”, above n 1, at 254.

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