In October 2017, the Irish Government announced in a press release that mothers of premature babies will receive additional maternity leave and maternity benefit for babies born on or after 1 October 2017. The extended period of benefit will be equivalent to the duration between the actual date of birth of the premature baby and the date when the maternity leave was expected to commence. This is ordinarily two weeks before the expected date of birth.
The Government press release sets out how mothers of premature babies can apply for extended maternity leave by contacting the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection. Despite this, the unusual situation exists where the Social Welfare Bill 2017 containing the legislative provisions for the extension remains only at the second stage of the legislative process.
In early November 2017, the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection stated that “The Government decided that the additional maternity leave and benefit would be available for mothers of premature babies born on or after 1 October 2017 and my Department is now working to make sure the necessary arrangements are put in place to meet that deadline”. The Government has until 1 April 2018 before the first payment of the extended maternity leave will be due, based on this being 26 weeks from 1 October 2017.
Workings of new arrangements
Under the new arrangements, the mother of a premature baby will be entitled to an additional period of paid maternity leave to commence at the end of the standard 26 week period of paid maternity leave. An example of this in practice is where a mother has planned to start her maternity leave and maternity benefit at week 37 of her pregnancy, 2 weeks before her expected due date. If the mother has her baby in week 31 of her pregnancy, which is approximately 6 weeks before she planned to start receiving maternity benefit and maternity leave, she can still claim maternity benefit for the standard 26 weeks from the date of birth. However, based on the Government’s announcement, she will now be able to claim an extra 6 weeks at the end of the 26 weeks. This means her maternity benefit and maternity leave will last until her baby is approximately 32 weeks old.
Why change is needed
Prior to this measure, if a baby was born in week 31 of a pregnancy, the mother could only claim maternity benefit until the baby was 26 weeks old. There are approximately 4,500 babies born prematurely each year in Ireland. For many of these babies, the first few weeks of their lives are spent in hospital. Often by the time a mother was able to bring her prematurely born baby home, she had used up much of her paid leave. In announcing the new measure, the Minister for Justice and Equality alluded to these difficulties stating there are strong compassionate and practical reasons for it.
At the time of writing, the position surrounding the full effect and timing of these changes remains unclear. This is because the relevant legislation has not yet been enacted. Despite this uncertainty, employers should be aware of this change coming down the tracks. The Government appears determined to have relevant legislation in force before the deadline of 1 April 2018.
Some practical takeaways for employers:
- the new measure will impact how long a period of maternity leave mothers of premature babies will be entitled to
- employers currently topping up maternity benefit will have to consider whether this top-up payment will be provided for extended maternity leave under the new measure
For more information on how these new measures could affect your business, contact a member of our Employment & Benefits team.
The content of this article is provided for information purposes only and does not constitute legal or other advice.