Maternity leave for parents with premature babies should be allowed to start later, says this new mum – ABC News (Australian Broadcasting Corporation)

by pregnancy journalist

Maternity leave for parents with premature babies should be allowed to start later, says this new mum


November 03, 2019 07:04:06

Emma Sharp had already used up 14 weeks of leave before her newborn son was healthy enough to come home.

Key points:

Baby Caelan — Emma and Luke Sharp’s first child — was born on February 12, 2017, weighing just 1,013g.

The tiny Territorian came into the world 98 days early and needed to stay at Royal Darwin Hospital for more than three months to make sure he could survive in the outside world.

“I was lucky I was healthy and discharged the same day,” Mrs Sharp said.

“But you leave hospital without your baby, you’re no longer pregnant, you never really had a pregnant belly and you’ve now got a baby but you can’t care for them, you can’t do anything — you can barely even touch them.

“I was then basically just useless, only able to express milk, or try to.”

Financial pressures start to add up

In Australia, mothers must start parental leave as soon as their baby is born, and cannot delay the start of their leave if their baby even if their baby is born prematurely.

Mrs Sharp said being forced to start her maternity leave as soon as Caelan was born and not being allowed the option of returning to work added a lot of pressure to their young family.

“Financially its a very unstable time, having a new baby,” she said.

Mrs Sharp had 12 weeks’ paid leave, which she had used up while Caelan was in hospital.

“I had to somehow find the time to organise the 18 weeks’ paid parental leave from the Government,” she said.

“I was back and forth from the Centrelink offices because nothing could be done online — I felt like I was always there when I could have been in the nursery with my baby.”

Mrs Sharp wants the Federal Government to allow mothers with premature babies to return to work earlier if they choose.

“It’s quite archaic to say: ‘You’ve had a baby now you have to now be off work’,” she said.

“If there was some kind of financial support that would have helped us at that time — any additional support— that would have made a big difference.”

Australian mothers need more ‘flexibility’

NT Working Women’s Centre director Rachael Uebergang agreed mothers should have the right to choose to delay the start of their period of parental leave in circumstances when a baby is born prematurely.

“A compulsory date for the commencement of parental leave generally presents no problems for the parents of full-term babies, but it may not be fair or appropriate for the parents of premature babies,” she said.

“Parents and workplaces ought to be given the flexibility to negotiate what works best for them, under the current laws, workplaces and parents do not have that flexibility.”

Ms Uebergang also said the period of parental leave available under the National Employment Standards should be extended “at least” by the period a premature baby is hospitalised.

“Under the current arrangements, where premature babies are hospitalised for significant periods of time and the mother is restricted to only 12 months of unpaid parental leave, it is foreseeable that she is forced to return to work before their family is ready,” she said.

“The parents of babies who are premature are encouraged to not use child care until their child is at least one year old — these arrangements may be putting the health of premature babies at risk.”

Ms Uebergang said NT Working Women’s Centre communicated its concerns with the Federal Government in 2018.

It called on the Commonwealth to examine the commencement date of parental leave under the National Employment Standards and scrutinise the Paid Parental Leave Act to ensure additional support — in the form of extended payments — was provided for the employee parents of premature babies.

“The response we received was that the Government has no plans to amend either the Fair Work Act or the Paid Parental Leave Act,” Ms Uebergang said.

Miracle Babies Foundation chief executive Kylie Pussell agreed there was a gap in government-funded support for families of premature or sick newborns who needed the support of a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit or Special Care Nursery.

Ms Pussell said the financial and emotional pressures of having to return to work earlier than planned could cause “immense stress to the whole family unit”.

“Miracle Babies Foundation is calling on the Commonwealth Government to make priority a review of current legislation on parental leave, taking into consideration family needs for premature and sick babies and work to improve parental leave for NICU/SCN parents,” she said.

“We want to see parliamentary consultation and conversation about this issue that can accommodate more for these families with different and unique needs to support for better long-term outcomes of the babies and the family unit.”

Commonwealth weighs in on the issue

Attorney-General Christian Porter said the Commonwealth would soon review the operation of the Fair Work Act 2009 to ensure unpaid parental leave and all related provisions provided a clear and consistent minimum standard.

“Consultation with stakeholders to review the unpaid parental leave and all related provisions of the Fair Work Act will be undertaken shortly,” he said.

Social Services Minister Anne Ruston added that Australia’s Paid Parental Leave scheme provided eligible working mothers with up to 18 weeks of pay at the rate of the national minimum wage while fathers and partners could get up to two weeks of pay.

Ms Ruston said currently the start date must be within 34 weeks of the birth or adoption to get the full 18 weeks, but the Federal Government announced plans to make the scheme more flexible so that, subject to the passage of legislation, from July 1 next year families could split their Parental Leave Pay into blocks of leave over a two-year period with periods of work in between.

This content was originally published here.

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