Paid maternity leave a step closer

Productivity Commission proposes 18 weeks at minimum wage.

In an important breakthrough for working women and their families, the Productivity Commission has proposed a national scheme for paid parental leave that could give nurses up to 32 weeks paid maternity leave.

The Commission’s plan for 18 weeks’ paid leave follows years of union lobbying for a universal scheme. One year after the election of the Rudd Government, a national scheme is finally on the agenda.

The Productivity Commission proposes that the Federal Government pay the adult minimum wage (currently $543.78 a week or an annual total of $9,788) on top of current maternity leave schemes, with employers contributing a 9% superannuation payment based on the minimum wage.

Fathers would also be eligible for two weeks’ paid paternity leave.

The Commission is seeking responses to its proposal and will hold public hearings before it makes a final report to the Government next February.

NSWNA Assistant General Secretary Judith Kiejda welcomed the proposal as an important breakthrough, given that Australia is the only country in the 30-member Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, besides the US, that does not have a national paid maternity leave scheme.

‘This proposal is a step towards recognising the right of all Australians to paid parental leave,’ Judith said.

NSW public health system nurses and midwives currently receive 14 weeks’ paid maternity leave at full nursing pay rates. Under the Productivity Commission proposal, if current arrangements are maintained public health system nurses and midwives would still receive the 14 weeks at full nursing pay rates – plus an additional 18 weeks at the adult minimum wage rate, bringing to 32 the total number of weeks’ paid maternity leave.

Private hospital and aged care nurses and midwives who currently receive paid maternity leave would also have the period of leave topped up so they receive an extra 18 weeks’ paid leave on top of their current arrangements.

Many private hospital and most aged care employers still provide no paid parental leave for nurses.

Judith said the Productivity Commission proposal would lend weight to the NSWNA’s push for paid parental leave in the private health sector.

NSWNA members and families to benefit

Judith said the provision for paid maternity leave was particularly significant for the NSWNA as the majority of its members are women.

‘It’s a breakthrough that will directly benefit nurses and midwives who need time off work to have and care for their babies. Women need time to recover from a birth, bond with baby and establish breastfeeding.

‘The benefits of having a mother who can take time off work to care for her baby, without having to worry about financial pressures, will flow through to all family members including partners,’ she said.

‘The absence of a national system of paid leave has created financial pressure and forced many members back to work too soon after giving birth,’ said Judith.

A recent ANF survey revealed that 68% of respondents had returned to work early for financial reasons. The survey also showed that when they returned to work, nurses and midwives were less able to continue breastfeeding and had difficulty establishing healthy family relationships.

Paid maternity leave will boost retention of nurses

Judith said international evidence showed women were more likely to return to work after a decent period of paid maternity leave, with some Australian employers reporting a return rate of up to 90%.

‘The NSWNA has long understood the value of paid parental leave schemes in stimulating lifetime employment rates of nurses and increasing retention rates for the health system, with reduced costs for training and recruitment.’

Big gains but further to go

The Assistant General Secretary said the NSWNA believed a national scheme should provide payment for 26 weeks, to enable babies to be exclusively cared for by their parents for six months.

‘We think 26 weeks is needed, in the interests of mother and child health and assisting women to re-enter the workforce,’ she said.

‘Large numbers of experienced female nurses and midwives in their late 20s and 30s are also at the stage of their lives when they are having, or thinking about having, families. We cannot afford to lose these nurses because of inadequate parental leave.’

The Union will push employers in all healthcare sectors to top up any national scheme to the full nursing pay rates, she added.

‘We will be also pushing to have super paid according to the employee’s full wage rather than at the Federal minimum wage,’ said Judith.

Vox pop 1: Long service and holiday leave covers shortfall

Eleanor Romney, a CNS at RPA Hospital, is three months into her maternity leave with her first child, John.

Eleanor chose to take 12 months off to care for her baby – believing this to be best for mother and child. To achieve this Eleanor is taking 28 weeks at half pay and a further 24 weeks long service and annual leave, also at half pay.

‘I feel very fortunate I’ve got this time off – and I thank the work of the unions over the years for that – but the reality is that to take this time off I had to use all my long service and holiday leave,’ she told The Lamp.

‘Our budget is tight and we’re probably only coping because we don’t have a massive Sydney mortgage – that would have had a big impact on how much time I could take off. We depend on my partner’s income and we’re definitely not putting any savings away.

‘Nursing is a female-dominated profession and if we want to retain experienced nurses we need to provide longer maternity leave.

‘The World Health Organisation recommends that mothers breastfeed exclusively for six months. Even with an extremely flexible workplace, breastfeeding is very tricky to manage if you’re back at work.

‘I believe the Productivity Commission’s recommendation of an extra 18 weeks at the minimum wage, on top of 14 weeks at full pay for public health sector nurses, would be a terrific improvement.

’I think this whole issue says something about the society we live in – about how much we value our families and our children. We should be doing all that we can to make parental leave accessible to everyone – not just women and not just people who are working. There needs to be provisions for fathers to do this too.

‘We’re always looking at how to keep people in the workforce, especially women my age. If we want to continue to tap into this age group we have to provide better maternity leave,’ said Eleanor.

Vox pop 2: Scheme would retain experienced nurses

Fiona Goodman is a NUM at Mosman Private Hospital and is expecting her first child two days after Christmas.

Fiona decided to delay having children until she had consolidated her career, but that now means it may be more difficult for her, as a NUM, to share a roster when she returns to work.

Fiona is planning to take a full year off, even though she thinks will only get four weeks paid maternity leave from her employer, Healthscope, and a further two weeks when she returns to work.

‘A child spending the first year with their mother would be ideal but I think that is going to be quite difficult due to finances,’ she said.

‘We will try to survive on my husband’s wage but that will put him under a lot of pressure so I may have to return to work sooner than I’d hoped.

‘It would be a lot easier with an extra 18 weeks at the minimum wage, though I think 26 weeks at full pay would be much better for new mums.

‘I believe society appreciates the value of child rearing and companies don’t want mothers to leave the workforce entirely. Paid maternity leave, flexible working hours and affordable child care would go a long way towards retaining experienced senior nursing staff in the health system.

‘I think it is important we achieve flexibility in the workplace, especially for NUMs, and that parity between the public and private sector includes equal maternity leave.’

Vox pop 3: Two months not enough

Jennifer Beddoe, RN, returned to work at St George Private Hospital in April after having her second child, Zachary, last November. At her Ramsay-owned hospital she was entitled to eight weeks’ paid leave. After using all her available holiday leave, Jennifer had to do the last three months without pay.

‘Eight weeks paid leave is just not long enough. I had to go back because we simply ran out of money,’ she said.

‘As nurses, we can’t work right up to the due date so we have to begin our maternity leave before the birth … and if you have a caesarean like me you have only just recovered from that by the time your paid maternity leave runs out.

‘It also affects how long you can keep breastfeeding your baby. I know we can breastfeed or express milk at work but for a lot of us that’s simply not practical. This affects how long some women can breastfeed and I think that’s wrong – I was forced to put my baby on the bottle before I was ready. That was the only choice I had.

‘Working with young children, you have to rely on family or friends or your partner – but he’s also a nurse and has to work 12-hour shifts. Try coordinating two shift-worker rosters … it just doesn’t happen so I have to rely on my mum. There’s no other back up. Childcare is ridiculous when you’re working shifts and my work has no childcare facilities. Without my mum I either couldn’t have babies or I’d have to quit work.

‘I hope the Government implements the Productivity Commission’s recommendation of an extra 18 weeks at the minimum wage. That would relieve a lot of financial pressure and allow us to spend a lot more time with our babies. ‘I’m glad we’re looking at the whole maternity thing because it’s just not fair. I mean even if we got paid like the public sector it’d be better,’ said Jennifer.

Vox pop 4: Motherhood respected, at last!

RPA midwife Cherie Desreaux is celebrating the arrival of her twins, Norah and Alexander – born in late October. Cherie told The Lamp the 18 weeks’ paid maternity leave for all working mothers, as proposed by the Productivity Commission, would be ‘a great move, a big step forward for working women’.

‘Finally, we have recognition that all women deserve paid maternity leave. Motherhood needs to be respected,’ she said.

As a public health system midwife, Cherie is entitled to 14 weeks’ paid maternity leave, or 28 weeks at half pay. ‘I’m going to take 28 weeks at half pay,’ she said.

Under the Productivity Commission proposal, Cherie would be entitled to 14 weeks’ paid leave at her full wage, plus an additional 18 weeks at the Federal minimum wage.

Cherie said the extra 18 weeks paid maternity leave proposed by the Productivity Commission would have ‘made a big difference’.

‘The Productivity Commission has put the right of women to paid maternity leave on the national agenda. It shows that motherhood is important and other things will flow out of this. It will extend to other areas like child care, with acceptance that all working parents deserve affordable, quality child care,’ said Cherie.

Vox pop 5: 18 weeks will help

First-time mum, Lara Knight, EEN at Lismore Base Hospital, wanted to spend the first year at home with her new baby Grace.

Resigned to the realities of modern maternity leave, the young North Coast nurse set about making ends meet on half her salary for 28 weeks and, like most new mums today, cobbling together whatever holiday pay and long service leave she could.

Six months into motherhood, Lara remains positive but things are getting tough for her and her husband Phillip – an organic macadamia and fruit farmer.

‘We live day-to-day on my income but by the time you’ve paid the loans and the bills it is a real struggle and we’re really only just coping.

‘The only reason I’ve been able to stay off work so far is because we have a house that came with the farm.

‘I think the proposed extra 18 weeks at the minimum wage rate [recommended by the Federal Productivity Commission] will help but the NSWNA’s recommendation of 26 weeks at full pay would really ease the stress. I mean the minimum wage [$543.78] is a bit ordinary, really. At present there are dozens of third world countries with more maternity leave than us.

‘It’s awful feeling like we have to choose between work and having children but my family will always come first – even if I have to give up work.

‘I’m still dreading the thought of putting Gracie into daycare when I go back to work,’ she told The Lamp.

‘I have a friend who had to put her baby into care at six weeks and I just can’t imagine how she copes. Another who returned to work had to quit because it was just too hard.

‘I want more kids but I think Phillip is worried about how we will afford it,’ said Lara.

Vox pop 6: Can’t afford leave but Yoonie comes first

Jin-Hee Noh, RN at Manly Vale Nursing Home, is planning to take six months off work to care for her seven-week-old baby Yoonie.

Jin-Hee’s employer, Hardi, offered nurses a strong Union Collective Agreement with a payrise up to 29% – along with improved conditions. However, the agreement did not include provisions for paid maternity leave, so Jin-Hee is taking unpaid leave to care for Yoonie.

With a mortgage and other day-to-day financial pressures, Jin-Hee can’t really afford to have this time off work, but she believes it’s very important a baby is cared for at home by its mother.

‘A mother needs time off to bond with her baby and establish breast feeding,’ she said.

‘I’m really trying to spend six months at home with her but we can’t really afford it. We’re really struggling financially. It’s causing me a lot of stress and worry.’

Jin-Hee said the extra 18 weeks’ paid maternity leave proposed by the Productivity Commission would have certainly relieved the financial pressure and worry.