Zen (noun): A state of uber coolness only attained through a totally laid-back type of attitude.
It’s how Social Protection Minister Leo Varadkar is feeling: Totally zen.
He said so, on the national airwaves while fielding questions about his leader’s expected departure date.
The same sense of coolness came through when responding to queries about delays in paying new mums their dues — the maternity benefit they are entitled to on foot of participating in the workforce, contributing to the economy, and making the requisite number of PRSI payments to qualify for a small but often essential weekly payment of €235 while on maternity leave.
These delays have been ongoing since — well, can’t be too sure, but maybe — February. They may continue until... well, even Leo can’t be certain.
“I don’t want to put a timeframe on it because I may not be able to deliver,” he said. He’s much better briefed on how the department is performing in his crusade to expose social welfare cheats. But delays in maternity payments? “I’m still trying to get a handle on it myself,” he told RTÉ yesterday.
For sure, there’s a whole lot of pregnant women around the country trying to get a handle on what these delays will mean at a time when the pending arrival should be their sole focus.
A browse of pregnancy and parenting website rollercoaster.ie shows high levels of anxiety. One contributor posting at the weekend had received no response in relation to her application for maternity benefit.
“I started my mat leave last Wednesday and haven’t heard a thing. Due to start paying a mortgage next month so a bit panicked that we will be stretched if it doesn’t come through in the next couple of weeks,” she wrote.
Other posts vent frustration at problems getting through by phone to the Letterkenny-based benefits section. The advice is to “email” the section because “you’ll be on hold for ages”.
This is outrageous. These women are seeking no more than their entitlement. The PRSI criteria to qualify for maternity benefit are quite stringent. If you don’t meet them, the State won’t be slow to tell you — you get nothing.
So why is it OK for the State not to fulfil, in a timely fashion, its side of the bargain? For many women, maternity benefit is their only source of income at a very challenging time. They don’t need the additional stress of a financial shortfall, precipitated, ironically, by a department that goes under the guise of “social protection”.
The department made matters worse by apologising to its “customers”, creating the impression that mums-to-be are persons seeking a service with which one is obliged to deal. Apologising to “women” may have dampened the anger palpable on Twitter as women/customers took aim at Zen Leo.
“Just tell your baby to wait. Leo is busy with @campaignforleo,” read one tweet. Another asked: “Could Maternity Benefit be paid on time if resources from Welfare Fraud campaign were used?”.
And my favourite: “Makes mothers of newborns sound like they are waiting on a delayed package from Amazon.”
Ladies, I can’t help feeling this situation would not pertain if men were the ones in receipt of maternity benefit. I can’t help feeling that women in this country continue to be second-class citizens. I have to agree with Iris Murdoch that being a woman is the same as being Irish: “Everyone says you’re important and nice but you take second place all the time.”
This dire situation was reported in the Inishowen Independent last February. Zen Leo has had more than a first trimester to resolve it.
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