Room for improvement to parental leave laws

As I guiltily drop my 14-month-old off in the “Crawlers Room” at preschool (she is yet to be categorised as a “Stomper”), I cannot help but feel an additional twinge of guilt for the parents and babies who frequent the “Rollers Room”.

Don’t get me wrong, I support those parents who are eager to get back to work as soon as possible. Personally, I love being back at work and am lucky enough to work somewhere that supports my desires to work flexibly. However, my period of parental leave has left me intimately familiar with New Zealand’s parental leave and I have had a lot of time (usually during the wee hours) to reflect on the law.

The Government is aware of the holes in New Zealand’s parental leave and payment scheme (as outlined in the Parental Leave and Employment Protection Act 1987 (Act)) and has sought various recommendations over the years as to its improvement. These are yet to be acted on.

The Act, and its entitlements, are surprisingly difficult to navigate.

In short, employees (who will be the primary carer of a child) who have worked an average of 10 hours a week for 12 months or more just before the expected birth of the child, or the date they’ll take over the care of the child, are entitled to 52 weeks of unpaid leave (from their position), with the first 26 weeks being Government-funded paid parental leave. Employees who’ve worked for at least an average 10 hours a week for six months or more just before the expected birth of the child, or date they’ll take over the care of the child, are only entitled to 26 weeks of unpaid leave (from their position) and 26 weeks of Government-funded parental leave payments. In other words, the employees who fall into the latter category will not be provided an additional 26 weeks extended leave so their employer is not required to hold their job open for 52 weeks. Furthermore, the Government-funded parental leave payments will be the equivalent of an employee’s ordinary weekly pay up to a maximum of $606.46 (before tax).

The Act does make provisions for “partners leave” which is simply two weeks of unpaid leave that does not detract from an employee’s other statutory leave entitlements.

A pregnant employee is entitled to take up to 10 days of special leave during the course of the pregnancy for pregnancy related reasons such as antenatal classes, scans and midwife appointments. These 10 days of special leave are, again, unpaid.

New Zealand has recently enacted the Holidays (Bereavement Leave for Miscarriage) Amendment Bill (No 2) giving mothers and their partners access to three days of bereavement leave following a miscarriage or stillbirth. New Zealand is not the first country in the world to progress legislation for miscarriage leave. Indian law stipulates women are entitled to six weeks’ leave if they miscarry a baby. In Ontario, if a woman loses a baby 17 weeks or less before her due date, she is entitled to 17 weeks of unpaid pregnancy leave. In the UK, a stillborn child born after the 24th week of pregnancy means that the mother is entitled to maternity leave and associated pay.

However, put simply, “international comparisons of paid parental leave policies often make NZ’s look inadequate compared to those of the Nordic societies, and certainly less comprehensive than in most other OECD countries” (Department of Labour 2007, Families Commission 2007, James 2002, Susan Kell Associates 2007).

We are starting to see many employers in New Zealand recognise that the minimum entitlements under the Act are perhaps not enough.  Many organisations are introducing Parental Leave policies (for a recent example, check out that offer “extras” (i.e. going above and beyond the statutory entitlements) such as:

  • Topping up the difference between the government funded parental leave payments and the employee’s normal wages or salary;
  • Providing paid partners leave; and/or
  • Financial assistance for employees returning to work from parental leave (paying an employee for 5 days of work while working 4 days for a specified period of time).

We recognise that this may not be something that all employers can manage, but we applaud those who are stomping in that direction.

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