Parents dealing with a stillbirth or infant death will be guaranteed 12 months of unpaid parental leave, giving them the same entitlements as parents with healthy babies.
Industrial Relations Minister Christian Porter announced the Coalition would increase provisions for families dealing with traumatic situations, saying the current guaranteed entitlement of six weeks of unpaid leave for a stillbirth or infant death was “insufficient for many parents who need more time before they return to work”.
“The government understands how devastating losing a child can be,” Mr Porter said in a statement on Wednesday.
Currently, under the Fair Work Act, an employer can request an employee return to work after a stillbirth, but must provide at least six weeks notice. All full- and part-time employees are also entitled to two days paid leave if a member of their immediate family dies.
Under new laws, to be introduced later in the autumn sitting of Parliament, parents will be able to take 12 months of unpaid leave after a stillbirth or infant death “should they need it”.
According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, there are 6.7 stillbirths per 1000 births, which adds up to almost 2200 families a year. According to the Stillbirth Centre of Research Excellence, there has been little improvement to the rate in more than 20 years.
Leave following stillbirth was a key issue raised by participants in a 2018 Senate inquiry, which called for better and clearer supports for employees affected by stillbirth.
The committee heard evidence “highlighting that employers may lack awareness of the trauma associated with stillbirth, and exercise considerable discretion and control over access to parental leave entitlements”.
Labor welcomed the announcement on Wednesday but said more work was needed to “provide consistency” across all employers and employees when it came to handling stillbirths.
Under further changes flagged on Wednesday, parents of premature babies or babies with birth-related complications who need immediate hospitalisation will be able to go back to work until the baby is able to go home.
“Parents have told us how frustrated they felt by having to use up large amounts of their leave while their little one was in hospital, instead of being able to put it on hold until they needed it,” Mr Porter said.
“These changes will give parents that flexibility and ensure they will get to spend quality time at home with their child when they leave hospital.”
The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry welcomed the proposal and stressed clear advice was needed for small business.
“Employers want to help any employee who devastatingly loses a child to stillbirth, or an infant, with many already providing entitlements to personal leave above those currently contained in the Fair Work Act,” chief executive James Pearson said.
“Clear and consistent advice and guidance for both employers and employees on the government’s proposed changes will ensure they work for all involved.”