PARENTS WILL soon enjoy increased flexibility and extended maternity leave if the government's plans to incorporate extra maternity leave entitlements into the National Employment Standards are passed.
Parents with newborn children will have the right to request an additional 12 months parental leave (currently capped at 12 months) and three weeks concurrent leave at birth or adoption (currently 1 week).
An employer may refuse a request for an additional 12 months leave if there are "reasonable business grounds" for doing so. However, according to Victoria Donaghy, senior associate with Minter Ellison Lawyers, the proposed NES do not define "reasonable business grounds" and the stated intention is to avoid limiting the reasonable grounds of refusal.
"'Reasonable business grounds' is not a totally new concept in employment law," said Donaghy. "Relevant considerations will differ on a case-by-case basis but will likely include: the size and financial position of the employer, the employee's position within the business and the impact of the request on efficiency, productivity and customer service," she said.
Flexible work practices is the other area in which employers will be affected, should these changes be passed.
"Although, historically, there has not been an express right to request flexible work practices there is an obligation to act reasonably in considering requests for flexible work practices," said Donaghy.
"The changes proposed by the NES do not require employers to grant a request for flexible work practices if there are 'reasonable business grounds' not to."
The Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency's (EOWA) submission to the Federal Government's Paid Maternity, Paternity and Parental Leave Inquiry supports calls for the introduction of a nationwide scheme so as to remove the disparities across the workforce and further encourage women's workforce participation.
The agency's submission points to the higher return-to-work rates in organisations that provide paid maternity leave such as ANZ, Macquarie University and Overnewton Anglican Community College.
The agency has recommended that once the initial period of maternity leave has been provided for women to recover from childbirth, all other kinds of leave be referred to as "parental leave" to reflect that leave provided should be accessible to either parent as primary carer.
In its submission the agency says: "With the rate of increase in the provision of paid paternity leave being less than that for paid maternity leave and with 61.5 per cent of organisations not providing any paid leave to fathers in their employment, the overwhelming employer bias is that men belong at work and women caring for their children.
"As such, EOWA would encourage a model that allows for either parent to take paid time off after the initial period allocated to women to physically recover from childbirth".
Last week EOWA released figures showing that the provision of paid maternity leave has increased from 23.7 per cent in 2001 to 48.9 per cent in 2007 among medium-to-large organisations. However, it noted there were still significant disparities across industry sector occupations and organisational size.