The period immediately after maternity leave can be incredibly stressful. For most of our members, it involves organising childcare placements, breaking routines for children and young babies, and coming up to speed on the changes in your workplace that have happened while you were gone. And all this occurs with broken sleep and the ongoing demands of caring for a new baby. Some of our members are happy to go straight from maternity leave back to full time work but a great many find they need to return part time for at least a while after maternity leave.
The National Employment Standard legislates a “right to request flexible working arrangements” for employees who have been with the same employer for more than 12 months if they are “the parent, or have responsibility for the care, of a child who is school aged or younger”. (There are some other groups too who can make this request such as over 55’s, carers, and people with a disability). The employer can only refuse this request on “reasonable business grounds.”
Every week, across the country, the AEU assists women to negotiate a fair return to work on flexible hours after maternity leave and this usually means part time hours. In many instances the employer is ignorant about working women's rights and in other instances, they are hanging on to outdated ideas that full time employees are the ideal.
Despite what some employers tell you, the obstacles to part time work are based on habit rather than good business practice. Independent research by Ernst and Young, (who are hardly a radical left feminist group), indicates that part time women workers are the most productive workers. According to their report, women in flexible roles waste only 11.1%, compared to an average of 14.5% for the rest of the working population.
Here are just two examples of teachers who didn’t have an easy time accessing part time work after maternity leave, who the AEU was able to help:
Suzanne is a secondary school PE teacher who had worked at her ACT school for over five years. When she went on maternity leave, a colleague took over her full time teaching load. When she returned from leave, she was told by her Principal that her full time job as a PE teacher had been given to her replacement because the “timetable doesn’t allow for part time work”. Suzanne was then offered a part time position as a Teacher’s Assistant for the rest of the year, effectively a demotion. This meant leaving the PE Teachers staff room which she found humiliating. She felt singled out and unwelcome.
In both these instances, the employer was giving incorrect advice and the union was able to intervene to support the teachers to negotiate a fair return to work part time after maternity leave, but only after both women had been through a lot of unnecessary angst and distress at an already challenging time.
The ACTU is currently running a test case in the Fair Work Commission to try to supplement the current “right to request” in the National Employment Standards with a model clause in each Modern Award that provides a more substantial entitlement, much like that enjoyed by SA AEU members. In order to help them, we are looking for stories about returning to work on flexible hours after maternity leave, both good and bad. If you are willing to share your story, contact AEU Federal Women's Officer, Sally Thompson at the AEU federal office.
This article originally appeared in the AEU Journal of the SA Branch, Vol 49, No 1, Feb 2017
Picture: SA Branch Delegates to the 2017 Federal Women's Conference