Parent’s Benefit scheme: Option of taking leave remains outside the grasp of many fathers

Most effective way ‘to ensure parity in the workplace is to increase parity at home’

In a few weeks’ time I will use up the last of my Parent’s Benefit entitlements, a scheme introduced in 2019 to help workers spend more time with their children during their early development.

It signals the end of the baby years for me and has given me pause to reflect on how we treat fathers during this crucial period. While I have found huge value in being able to spend time with my children during their early years, the scheme itself makes it very difficult for dads to take advantage of it in the first place. Many fathers don’t use it at all, because unlike many of our European neighbours, our system isn’t fit for purpose and needs to change.

Under the Parent’s Benefit measure, claimants must use up the leave within the first 24 months of their child’s life (or within two years of placement with your family in the case of adoption). The government extended the scheme during the early years of my children’s lives from a total of five weeks to seven weeks leave. This will increase again to nine weeks leave from August of this year.

Parent’s Benefit offers €274 per week for seven weeks to workers with the required PRSI contributions, while Paternity Benefit claimants receive the same rate for two weeks of leave after the birth of a child

The option of taking parent’s leave remains outside the grasp of many fathers, however, because it fails to replace workers’ entire incomes, leading to an almost impossible situation for dads during some of the most expensive years of their lives.

The scheme needs an overhaul — for the good of our children and for the good of ourselves as parents.

The leave and benefit entitlements for fathers are a veritable word salad and can therefore be confusing to would-be claimants. Paternity Leave, Parent’s Leave, Parental Leave ... what’s the difference?

Parent’s Benefit offers €274 per week for seven weeks to workers with the required PRSI contributions, while Paternity Benefit claimants receive the same rate for two weeks of leave after the birth of a child. Fathers are entitled to both benefits. On the other hand, Parental Leave constitutes 26 unpaid weeks of leave up to a child’s 12th birthday.

Under information released to me by the Department of Social Protection, just over 74,000 Parent’s Benefit claims were awarded in 2022. Sixty-four per cent of the claimants were women and 36 per cent were men. This means that just under 27,000 Parent’s Benefit claims were awarded to dads in that year.

But there were more than 57,000 births.

There is a gaping discrepancy at play here which tells us how few fathers are opting for this leave at all.

One of the reasons why fewer fathers than mothers take this leave is because, due to the gender pay gap, working dads sometimes have a higher income than working mums

Once again, women are continuing to not only carry the burden of childcare, but is there also a reluctance on behalf of Irish fathers to take advantage of State-sponsored time with their children? This requires delicate unpacking once we recognise the shortcomings of the Parent’s Benefit scheme.

Laura Bambrick, head of social policy & employment affairs with the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, feels that our Parent’s Benefit system has a lot of catching up to do with our neighbours in Europe. “We’re really unusual in Ireland in that our benefits are paid at a flat rate,” she says. “Across the rest of Europe, the [benefit] is pay-related so you are getting a high proportion, or nearly all your income, replaced by the social insurance system.”

Bambrick argues that it is very difficult for fathers to support their families on the current Parent’s Benefit rate. “Even if you’re a minimum wage worker, your wage is almost €500, so it’s a big, big drop to go from €500 a week to €274.”

While some companies top up the benefit, others don’t.

One of the reasons why fewer fathers than mothers take this leave is because, due to the gender pay gap, working dads sometimes have a higher income than working mums. This results in a reluctance to sacrifice the higher wage for the sake of a few weeks’ leave with the family.

People Before Profit-Solidarity TD Paul Murphy is a recent father and believes that the current system is actually entrenching gender inequality in Ireland, rather than helping to erode it. “It reinforces the idea that it’s the woman’s role to stay at home and look after the kids,” he argues. “But also on the other hand, it reinforces the idea that the man’s job is to go out and work and earn money to provide for the family and not have the time to connect with their baby.”

Crucial to the plan is the concept of ‘non-transferable’ leave. This means a father cannot simply offload their leave to the mother

According to the Central Statistics Office, the average weekly wage is north of €900. It is preposterous that the Government teases the opportunity of Parent’s Benefit when it means more than a 75 per cent pay cut per week.

Murphy and his party colleagues are calling for a system that replaces a worker’s salary more faithfully. He wants both parents to be entitled to a full year of Parent’s Benefit, at full pay. He says this would align us with a number of our more progressive neighbours, such as Norway and Finland.

Crucial to the plan is the concept of “non-transferable” leave. This means a father cannot simply offload their leave to the mother. It pushes fathers, and society more broadly, to embrace its paternal responsibilities.

There is a reason why our system is flawed. It’s because the recognition of fatherhood in Irish workplace culture is alarmingly recent. It was just 30 years ago that fathers first received a form of paid parental leave, albeit one which was highly restricted and based on tragic necessity rather than a principle of inclusivity.

In 1994, the Oireachtas passed the Maternity Protection Act. Within this legislation was a clause that allowed a father to take paid leave only when the mother of the child had died during or immediately after giving birth.

Twenty-two years later, with our backs against the wall in light of new EU legislation, the Government finally introduced a two-week statutory Paternity Benefit for new dads.

The absence of a robust Parent’s Benefit, which genuinely replaces lost wages, has an enormous knock-on effect for women. It perpetuates the gender pay gap as women end up shouldering the majority of the child care burden, rather than pursuing their careers.

An overhaul of the system, resulting in a legitimate model which guarantees parents a majority of their wage during time off, is required

The gender gap in the workplace continues, not because of an absence of protections for women, but rather because of an absence of protections for men’s role as fathers. “It’s because we don’t facilitate fathers to provide more care for their children,” says Bambrick. “The social infrastructure isn’t there.”

The best way to ensure parity in the workplace is to increase parity at home.

We are now approaching the fifth anniversary of the Parent’s Benefit scheme in Ireland. It continues to offer the bare minimum, a tokenistic gesture. An overhaul of the system, resulting in a legitimate model which guarantees parents a majority of their wage during time off, is required.

Not only can this bridge the gender gap but it can also ensure dads get to spend more time with their children.

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