Call to means test paid parental leave

23:11, Sep 01 2014

Paid parental leave should be means-tested to leave more in the pot for those that really need it.

That’s the view of some of the winners and finalists in last year’s inaugural Women of Influence awards who attended an Auckland WOI Roundtable debating Labour’s proposal to extend paid parental leave from 14 to 26 weeks and introduce a $60 a week baby bonus for lower income families in the first year.

Labour MP Sue Moroney has accused National of delaying the second reading of her private member’s bill on paid parental leave despite overwhelming public support of it and it’s now thought unlikely to be voted on before this year’s election. National is expected to announce a smaller extension as part of this week’s Budget, probably by four weeks to 18 weeks.

Mai Chen, founding partner of public and employment law specialist Chen Palmer and mother of one, said the real issue was not so much the length of paid time that could be taken off but the amount paid to those that do. The current amount of $488.17 a week for 14 weeks was less than the minimum wage.

One way of providing more money to those parents would be to means-test those who receive paid parental leave, she said.

‘‘Frankly a woman like me doesn’t actually need paid parental leave to help me. I would rather PPL was means-tested such that those who really need it, in terms of the public policy underlying why we even have PPL, actually get some help.’’

The Australian government has pledged  a generous extension to paid parental leave from 18 weeks at the minimum wage to 26 weeks at the mother’s actual wage, capped at $50,000, but Treasurer Joe Hockey has warned it could be one of a number of transfer payments the country considers means-testing.

The idea is supported is by Therese Walsh, mother of two, the inaugural Women of Influence winner and head of New Zealand’s 2015 Cricket World Cup campaign.

‘‘We means test for almost every other kind of benefit, why should this be any different? There isn’t enough taxpayer money to go around and the spend must be appropriate. I don’t have a strong view on how much time should be taken but the dollars should be enough to provide the necessities.’’

But WOI finalist and company director Helen Robinson strongly disagreed with both means-testing and extending PPL.

‘‘New Zealand is a stable economy and we have equal opportunity in terms of income. To me that [means testing] is entirely inappropriate for the type of open and transparent country we are.’’

She also opposed extending PPL from an economic perspective, saying New Zealand wasn’t in a position to do that.

But she is a big fan of flexibility in the workplace, allowing parents to come back part-time if that suited them and provided they still met the responsibilities of their role.

‘‘I have three children who all came to work with me when days old. My kids are well-rounded, independent, successful and love their Mum. It was good for them and for me.’’

And in Robinson’s view, parents often perform better than their counterparts without the same time pressures on them.

‘‘They have an incentive to get things done and are more productive.’’

The Employment Relations Bill currently before Parliament will increase the amount of flexible working hours an employee can apply for but there is little flexibility in the amount you can earn while on paid parental leave, the Roundtable participants said.

Emeline Afeaki-Mafile’o, a mother of three who runs a south Auckland-based  not-for-profit organisation that mentors youth and children, said support for mothers needed to cater to both those working and the self-employed. New Zealand currently ranks 16th on the Save the Children charity’s annual Mothers’ Index, comparing the well-being of mums in 178 countries by considering factors such as health, education, economic and gender status.

On-going support rather than just an entitlement for a certain period of paid leave was also important, Afeaki-Mafile’o said.

‘‘We have to recognise the value in choosing to stay at home and raise a family as well as choosing to come back to work. Is our purpose or value in society determined by our ability to earn income?’’ She said the dollar value for the child, the cost of childcare and the circumstances surrounding parents care-giving all had to be considered.

Last year’s WOI emerging leader Maghsa Moghaghegh, an IT lecturer at Unitec who has not yet started a family, said many women were concerned they’d lose traction in their career and respect if spending too long out of the workforce.

‘‘We have to embed in society and the community that PPL is important and everyone deserves that.’’
Rachel Taulelei, mother of one and founder of food supplier Yellow Brick Road, said the greatest goal for many women was financial independence.

‘‘I feel I’ve been a better mother for working, as a role model for my daughter. But I don’t think it is as cut and dried as saying it should be 14 weeks or 26 weeks - it needs to be enough to allow women the option to be at home.’’

Many women got frustrated at working part-time as they couldn’t achieve what they wanted to.

Walsh, who formerly worked for the NZ Rugby Union, said she was the guinea pig for accommodating workplaces but while she wanted to work part-time, she also wanted the big jobs.

‘‘Something had to give. It’s unpopular to to say flexibility is hard,’’ she said.

Chen agreed, saying she was an unreliable parent because of the demands of running her business, which is why her husband was the main caregiver.  ‘‘Young children and a big job don’t go well together. It’s doing woman a disservice telling them you can have it all.’’

The group also felt pay equity was more likely to be an election issue than paid parental leave, despite Labour’s languishing bill.

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