Maternity benefit has been cut in this week’s budget to €230 per week, down from €262*. This is getting some attention in the media, but understandably, it is overshadowed by more hard-hitting changes. There have been some comments from ISME, One Family, and from the Director of the National Women’s Council of Ireland Orla O’Connor who said “Standardising maternity benefit at €230 per week is absolutely anti-women and anti-families as it means a de-facto reduction of €32 per week for the vast majority of women.”
But it’s certainly not the top story, and this is at least to some extent because most of the people who will be impacted by this cut in the future are not affected at present. Many of those who will receive the reduced payment are not currently pregnant.
Pregnancy and maternity leave are temporary states, snapshots within a woman’s life, a parallel universe to dip into once, twice, three times, maybe more, maybe not at all. So this cut doesn’t have a permanent impact, and thus is not comparable to losing a medical card for a sick child.
But what message is it sending about how mothers are viewed and valued? Six months ago, the Personal Insolvency Guidelines were being discussed in terms of mothers whose salaries didn’t cover childcare being told to give up work. Quite rightly there was outcry, and the message was rolled back. But it couldn’t be unsaid.
Childcare costs are prohibitively expensive for many families, and no relief has ever been put in place to help parents pay for this. Childcare costs are a second mortgage for most families where both parents work.
And now a maternity benefit cut that will affect thousands of women across the country.
For some, whose employers “top up” their salaries (paying the difference between benefit and usual salary), the cut will not hit so hard. But only 38% of employers are paying this top up. For the majority of working mothers, maternity leave means no salary, other than what is paid by the state.
This is a fact that it not always widely understood. Maternity “leave” is required by law – an employer must grant leave, but this simply means a woman is entitled to return to work. It doesn’t require the employer to pay anything during the leave. So 62% of employers don’t pay salaries during maternity leave. The majority of women rely solely on what is paid by the government. Meaning that the majority of women who will take maternity leave next year will indeed be hit hard by this new cut.
Small and medium-sized companies can’t afford to pay two salaries while an employee is on maternity leave, so that’s not the answer. We rely on the state to make this payment, to enable parents to choose to start families without the severe financial pressure that a significant drop in salary brings.
There is a quote in the budget section of the Irish Independent; “This is one of the longest period of maternity cover in the EU, experts said”
But that’s not comparing like with like. In Germany, the state pays 100% of an employee’s salary for fourteen weeks. followed by 65% (up to €1800 per month) for the next fourteen months. And mothers can then take unpaid maternity leave until the child is three years old, with a guaranteed job with her employer to return to.
In Luxembourg, 100% of salary is paid by the state for sixteen weeks, followed by €1790 net pay per month for the next twelve months.
So it’s misleading to say that Ireland has “one of the longest period of maternity cover” – the payment from the state is far, far less than in some other European countries.
At every turn there are financial obstacles making it increasingly difficult for mothers to work outside the home. And yet many have no choice – we are now in a situation where huge numbers of families live in houses that cannot be paid for with just one income. Not mansions. Not investment properties. Not people who lost the run of themselves during the boom.
Just regular families who bought regular houses to have a roof over their heads, and had the misfortune to be stepping on to the property-ladder at what we now know was the peak of the housing boom.
Working mothers are being pushed and pulled on all sides – it is financially difficult to work, financially difficult to be on maternity leave, financially difficult to stay at home with the kids.
The choice to work or stay at home should, in an ideal world, be about family, about fulfillment, about balance. Women should have the choice to work or stay at home or any combination in between. We don’t live in an ideal world – far from it. The country is broke, and broken.
I’m not writing any of this to suggest that maternity benefit should be considered ahead of all other cuts – everyone is suffering and somehow we have to pay.
But just because it’s not the deepest cut, doesn’t mean we should say nothing at all.
*benefit is not a flat €230 per week, which is an increase for some who were on a lower rate, but the vast majority of mothers were on the higher rate of €262.