Staying safe: Cork-based mum is campaigning to extend maternity leave to protect her baby

A mum is campaigning to extend maternity leave to protect her baby, says Sharon Ní Chonchúir
Staying safe: Cork-based mum is campaigning to extend maternity leave to protect her baby

A mum is campaigning to extend maternity leave to protect her baby, says Sharon Ní Chonchúir

Agnes Graholska and five-month-old daughter.
Agnes Graholska and five-month-old daughter.

A mother in Cork City is campaigning for action to be taken to address the precarious situation facing women returning to work after maternity leave.

With creches currently closed, most of these women will not have access to childcare. Even when creches do open, as provisionally scheduled for July 20, many will be reluctant to entrust their babies to their care.

“I have two little girls, three-year-old Ava and five-month-old Anna,” says Agnes Graholska, who moved to Ireland from Latvia 10 years ago and is now working for Abtran Customer Management in Cork.

“I’m a member of a Facebook group for mothers who were expecting their babies in December and I saw there that mothers in Britain had started a petition asking for maternity leave to be extended. I thought we needed the same thing here, so I started the campaign on [https://www.uplift.ie]www.uplift.ie[/url].”

Her campaign calls on the government to extend current maternity leave by 12 weeks. It has got 21,664 signatures so far and Graholska has since been joined by a team of other mothers who are helping her to drive the campaign forward.

“In the first couple of days, I got hundreds of emails from mothers saying that they would end up having to choose between losing their jobs and keeping their child safe at home,” she says.

“Nobody knows what Covid-19 really is. We are scared to leave our homes or bring our babies outside. How can we send our babies into creches where there is unknown risk? Whatever about older children, babies’ immune systems justaren’t ready.”

CHILDREN’S SAFETY

Frances Byrne, director of policy and advocacy with Early Childhood Ireland, understands these concerns.

“I’m on the advisory group to get creches reopened on June 29 for the children of essential workers and I can tell you from speaking to our members that everyone is anxious about the health and safety of children and staff,” she says.

According to a survey carried out by Early Childhood Ireland, 88% of the 609 childcare providers questioned have reservations about re-opening so soon.

“There are so many questions that have to be answered,” says Byrne.

What are the implications and expectations regarding physical distancing of children? Will childcare providers have to take children’s temperatures every day? What will they have to do if a child has a temperature? It’s still early days in terms of our understanding of Covid-19 and the childcare issue is hugely complicated.

With more than 200,000 children attending some form of childcare here, the sector is looking to other countries which are ahead of us in easing their lockdows. In New Zealand, creches were reopened on May 18, with parents dropping children at so-called ‘kiss and go’ zones and providing staff with details that might be needed for contact tracing.

NORWEGIAN MODEL

The Irish government is said to be interested in the Norwegian model of reopening services. This involves having children in the same room with the same toys and the same carers every day, and parents waiting in their cars while their children are brought in and out of the creche by childcare professionals.

“Scandinavian countries reopened creches in April,” says Byrne. “One thing they are doing is using their outdoor spaces more as it’s easier to keep physical distance outside and fresh air is better than an enclosed space. That seems to be working for them but most of our creches have limited outdoor spaces and some have none at all.”

Graholska’s campaign is gaining political attention. “We currently have support from 15 Senators, 65 TDs and 123 councillors,” she says.

Labour Party leader Alan Kelly has raised the issue in the Dáil. “Women who are due back to work in the next month or so are facing a real challenge,” he says.

“It is impossible to find childcare with those who could provide it afraid of the health implications of taking on small babies until the pandemic is over. After the collapse of the childcare scheme for healthcare workers [earlier this month], westill have no idea how creches will operate when they are allowed to reopen.

Parents and staff need guidance from the government and, at the very least, there should be an extension of maternity leave for new parents who want the option.

SUBSIDY SCHEME

The uncertainty regarding childcare is only one of the issues facing mothers returning to work after maternity leave. Another is that many will be unable to avail of the Temporary Wage Subsidy Scheme.

Women who were on maternity leave but still being paid by their employer on February 29 qualify for the scheme. Women who only receive the State maternity benefit of €245 a week do not. Data from previous years shows that this amounts to 52% of the women on maternity leave annually, which means the majority of women are not covered by the scheme and are effectively at risk of being laid off.

The National Women’s Council of Ireland, SIPTU and other trade unions have raised this issue, but the government has so far failed to act.

“It’s not acceptable that some women are being excluded from the scheme,” says Alan Kelly. “It’s discriminatory and once the anomaly came to light, it should have been fixed immediately.”

Graholska’s focus remains on her campaign to extend maternity leave.

“Right now, women with young babies are incredibly anxious about what will happen once creches and private childminders reopen,” she says.

“All we’re asking is that the State gives those mothers a little more time to stay safe at home with their babies while they set in place the systems and structures that will make childcare centres as risk-free as possible for babies and for all children.”

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