Businesses urged to find out about new baby leave laws
New laws allowing mothers and fathers of new babies to split parental leave between them will have "significant" ramifications for companies in Northern Ireland, it has been claimed.
The new Work and Families (Northern Ireland) Act 2015, which will apply from the beginning of next month, will allow new parents to split 50 weeks of leave between them, after a compulsory two weeks off for the mother.
Rosemary Lundy, employment law partner at law firm Arthur Cox, said mothers of children born on or after April 5 will be able to end their maternity leave early and divide the untaken leave and pay with their partner.
"For example, a mother could end her leave after 12 weeks, leaving 40 weeks (of the total 52 week entitlement) available for shared parental leave.
"If both the mother and her partner are eligible, they can share the remaining 40 weeks between them, taking time off together or separately."
She said the new laws presented an operation issue which businesses had to address.
The firm is to hold seminars on how employers can develop policies to ensure they comply with requests for both continuous and broke up periods of leave.
She said early dialogue leading to better forward planning was crucial and the legislative changes could also affect levels of pay.
"As this new legislation requires a consistent approach when dealing with shared paternity leave requests, it may signal a review of any enhanced maternity pay that companies may have in place."
Wilfred Mitchell, policy chair of the Federation of Small Businesses, said the new regime was a "formalisation of a process that has worked informally for years".
But he added: "The reality is that much of the new law is complex and fairly daunting for small employers with no human resources departments to help navigate its pitfalls.
"There is a risk that it will be seen by many small businesses as being yet another burden that makes the idea of employing people even less attractive.
"That is not good for them, nor is it good for the economy as a whole."
He said one section of the legislation required 56 pages of notes from the Department for Employment and Learning.
"We would call on the minister to ensure that guidance is kept simple and straightforward to ensure that the good things about this new legislation do not get swamped by the negative perceptions around its complexity."
David Fry, a senior policy adviser with the CBI in Northern Ireland, said the shared parental leave system could "revolutionise" the approach to working parents.
"The previous system was antiquated and was based on an assumption of mothers being children's primary care provider.
"It worked for neither families nor employers, who suddenly found knowledge and expertise was lost from the workplace for extended periods of time. The CBI therefore supports reform of the existing system."
He added: "A flexible workforce can lead to better engagement, flexible staffing and more diverse talent pool. It is for these reasons that we, much like compatriots in Great Britain, support the proposed reforms.
"However, for the reforms to have the continued confidence and backing of the business community it is imperative that, in a time of continuing economic challenge where the burden of red tape must continue to be reduced, the system is simple so as to be truly effective."