Reaction to the government’s announcement on shared parental leave proposals last week was mixed.Many welcomed the move, agreeing with Nick Clegg’s suggestion that it would stop women feeling as if they had to choose between a career and a baby, and allow fathers to be more hands-on. The Institute of Directors came down firmly on the other side of the fence, denouncing the plans as a ‘nightmare’ for employers. Most SME employers are likely to fall somewhere between these two positions, perhaps agreeing with the proposal on a personal level, yet worried about the uncertainty it could cause in their business from an employer’s perspective. As with many employment law changes, the realities of the proposal will be workable if SME owners fully understand the parameters of the arrangements, what they can and cannot agree to as employers and how they communicate this to their staff effectively. A recap of the government’s proposal Current law in place since April 2011 allows fathers and mothers to share some of the mother’s maternity leave between them but in single blocks of time; the father being allowed to take as additional paternity leave up to six months of what would have been the mother’s maternity leave that can start once the baby is 20 weeks old. The latest proposal adds more opportunity for both parents to have time off work by virtue of reforms to parental leave arrangements. Under the new reforms, apart from the first two weeks of leave which are earmarked for the mother’s recovery, the remaining 50 weeks of leave can be shared between both parents in any blocks of time they wish. In a bid to ensure that this proposal is workable for smaller companies, employers will be allowed to agree a proposed pattern of time to be taken off and on and can insist that the time taken off be confined to a continuous block, with no more than two subsequent changes. Unlike the current arrangement, parents will both be able to be off work at the same time. Tips for SMEs Plan ahead: Workers will be required to give at least eight weeks’ notice before the start date of their parental leave, so both parties have a good period of time to get to grips with the new arrangement. Balance the workload: particularly important to SMEs is the need to cover the workload of the staff member off on leave. Planning cover could be difficult if employees’ plans for leave are uncertain, and resentment from other members of staff who feel as though they are picking up the slack could arise. SME owners need to agree the pattern of their leave with their staff before they go off so this can be well planned. Communicate: both with the member of staff due to go on leave and with other members of staff covering for them. If both parties are consulted about the plans and feel as though their concerns have been taken into consideration, there is a reduced likelihood of disgruntled workers causing problems in the business as a result of the new arrangement. Remember that the proposals also apply to same sex couples and adopters, so could stretch further into your workforce than the existing maternity leave arrangements. The proposals will obviously have an impact on how you pay your staff members – the proposals currently suggest that parents taking shared parental leave will receive any balance of the mother’s statutory maternity pay. Working out the exact entitlements is likely to take up resources, so start early to ensure this is all in place and there are no hiccups further down the line. Chris Cook is joint head of employment at SA Law.
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