Tess here. In our last episode, I talked a bit about the Paid Parental Leave Scheme in Australia and the issues I had receiving it (or rather, NOT receiving it) after little O was born earlier this year.
To explain the issue a little more clearly, I've pasted below an abridged version of a letter I sent in December to the current Federal Minister for Small Business and Assistant Treasurer, Ms Kelly O'Dwyer, detailing my thoughts about the unfair criteria to receive PPL (especially for self-employed people like myself) versus the other optional parenting payment available to fathers/partners, Dad And Partner Pay.
Under the current legislation, the eligibility requirements for parents to receive the federal Paid Parental Leave (PPL) Payment fail to address the needs of those who are self-employed or are employed in a contract/freelance capacity, and are unfair to women who choose to run their own businesses in order to earn an income whilst providing full-time care to their young children.
Since 2008, I have worked independently as a self-employed graphic designer and publisher. I currently work from home. I have no employees and my income is derived from a combination of service-based design work and product sales.
Earlier this year I gave birth to my second son.
In my application to Centrelink to receive PPL, I stated that I wished to claim PPL payments for 18 weeks from the time that my son turned 6 months old. The claim was rejected by Centrelink on the grounds that I had stated on my application that I had returned to work since his birth.
It’s true – since one month after his birth, I have spent an average of 4 hours per week working from home during his daily naps, or after he is asleep in the evening. Being self-employed, I’m lucky to be able to reduce my workload to accommodate the needs of my family, and the kind of work I have done since his birth includes designing a logo for a client (a project that saw approximately 10 hours work completed over an 8-week period), posting to my business’ social media accounts, and making updates to a client’s existing poster design.
I understood that according to the Act, self-employed parents could still engage in ‘light administrative duties’, however I would not class these examples as ‘administrative tasks’. I regard them as ‘work’ – but not a ‘return to work’ that prevents me from being fully available, physically and emotionally, to my baby son.
My desire to delay the receipt of PPL until my son was six months of age was entirely based on wanting to be able to choose when, within his first year of age, I would stop work completely and receive PPL, to best suit his needs and the needs of my business. Now, at seven months of age, I can attest that his needs (and waking hours) are far greater than when he was a newborn, and my availability to work in my business has been greatly reduced.
The current PPL legislation forced my husband and I to investigate other parental benefits, and in doing so we uncovered a number of issues within the Act that unfairly disadvantages self-employed women and families where both parents are self-employed or run a small business.
1. Criteria of PPL discriminates against women in comparison to Dad And Partner Pay (DAPP)
Under the current scheme, the requirements for a person to receive DAPP stipulate that they "be on unpaid leave or not working during your Dad and Partner Pay period".
The primary stipulation is that for dads and partners to receive government-funded parental pay they must simply not be acting in a capacity that constitutes work during that time. Further, the eligibility requirements state that "If you choose to take your Dad and Partner Pay period at a later date, we will pay you at that time."
The same flexibility in parental payment is not afforded to women under PPL, who under that scheme are required to "be on leave or not working from when you become the child's primary carer until the end of your Paid Parental Leave period.’
It is not clear why women cannot also choose to take their paid parental leave at a later date and be paid at that time.
The difference in eligibility criteria between PPL and Dad Or Partner Pay is detrimental and patronising to female business owners such as myself, as it assumes that I cannot manage a business or engage in work from home at the same time as providing full-time care for a newborn, even when that newborn will sleep (on average) 16-20 hours per day in the first 18 weeks of its life.
Yet Dad Or Partner Pay – identified in the Act to "allow fathers and partners to take a greater share of caring responsibilities and to support mothers and partners from the beginning" – allows men and partners to take time off from work at a time convenient to themselves, the child, and the mother, whether that be immediately after the birth or several months down the track, and be compensated for it if they meet all other eligibility criteria.
2. Criteria of PPL discriminates against self-employed/freelance women AND men
Patrick, my husband and father of our two children, is a freelance film and TV editor whose income is derived from short-term contracts with a range of employers, as well as freelance clients. He also has the option to work from home.
Under the PPL scheme, Patrick is allowed to receive some or all of the PPL payment. This situation would have suited our family, as sharing the leave period would mean that as parents we could share the role of full-time carer of our son but not be absent from our work/business for as long.
However, the scheme requires that Patrick would also have to have not returned to work since our son's birth – a financial situation that would see our two-parent family surviving on a single minimum wage income for at least part of the first 18 weeks of our son's life.
This situation is quite unrealistic, given that as freelancers and business owners, we do not receive holiday pay or carer pay from an employer to assist our family financially during this time.
Why allowing families the option to delay the payment of PPL to any time within a child's first year makes sense
The criterion that claimants must not have returned to work in any capacity (other than the ambiguous ‘occasional administrative task’) since the birth of their child in order to receive PPL is short-sighted, when you consider the circumstances of a self-employed mother or father who works from home.
Small business owners, the self-employed, freelancers, contractors and entrepreneurs who work from home are in a unique position to provide attentive, full-time care to their infant children while managing business tasks as required within the first 18 weeks of their life.
But this does not mean they should therefore be excluded from receiving PPL simply because they choose – or may need – to continue running their businesses, even in a greatly reduced capacity, in the early months of their child’s life.
The Act’s objectives are to "promote equality between men and women" and "encourage women to continue to participate in the workforce" – but I do not believe that the current criteria to receive PPL is conducive to everyone to achieving these objects.
Giving families the option to delay the payment of PPL to any time within a child’s first year of life would allow parents who are self-employed to use their best judgement when to take a break from their business to receive PPL – to care for their child, strategically remove themselves from their business duties, and to divide the share of PPL between both mother and father where required – while also ensuring that their business can continue as a going concern
It is unfair that despite the tax that we pay and the contributions myself and my husband make to our nation via our respective businesses, as well as meeting all other criteria for the PPL payment, that we are denied any flexibility in our receipt of PPL.
So there you have it. My story, my opinion.
As self-employed women/parents, we shouldn't accept the government telling us that we should not return to work 'for even one hour' after the birth of our babies 'in order to encourage bonding with the child' (as a "helpful" Centrelink employee told me on one of many phone conversations with them).
I'm not 'anti-government' by any means, but along the same lines as legislation telling me which person of which gender I can or can't marry, the government should not question my ability to bond with my child and use my brain to make money at the same time. If they're going to offer a parental leave scheme, by all means set some parameters, but then let citizens work out for themselves how they can incorporate it best into their lives.
Even though my opportunity to receive PPL this time around (or ever again - this baby-making factory is now closed!) has passed, my hope is that talking about this encourages review and change of the PPL payment criteria for future applicants.
I haven't yet heard back from Ms O'Dwyer's office, but will update the post here if/when I do.