Working families will benefit from more generous leave entitlements in the New Year. When it comes into effect on January 1, the Employment (Maternity Leave Extension and Paternity Leave) Amendment Act 2019 will enhance certain existing rights while also creating significant new entitlements.
The change that has attracted the most attention is the extension of paid maternity leave. Women will now be able to take 13 weeks' paid leave after childbirth, provided they have worked for their employer for 12 months continuously by the expected date of delivery. This is a substantial increase from the current entitlement of eight weeks paid leave with an additional four weeks unpaid.
The role of the father in childcare will also be recognised in labour law for the first time. A father of a newborn will be able to take five days' leave to care for the child or support the mother. If the father has been continuously employed for 12 months by the expected date of delivery, then he will also be entitled to be paid during his paternity leave.
As is currently the case for maternity leave, the father will need to give notice to his employer at least four weeks before he wants the leave to commence and must also provide a doctor's certificate confirming the expected date of childbirth. Paternity leave cannot be taken before the child is born and must be taken within 14 weeks of the birth.
There will also be changes to annual vacation rights. Currently, employees can take two weeks' paid vacation per year, once they have completed one year's service. From the new year, employees can enjoy their paid holiday sooner, as they will be able to take the first of their two weeks' leave once they have been employed for just six months.
The new law swept through the legislation process with overwhelming support from both political parties. The Minister of Labour, Community Affairs and Sport, highlighted studies that have shown the benefit to children from increased periods of maternity leave, as well as the assistance that paternity leave can give in developing the father-child bond. However, there are concerns from business about the consequences of the changes, which add to the cost of doing business in Bermuda. Employers may be more reluctant to hire, as the cost of employing staff increases.
Some employers, particularly those of the larger "white collar" variety, will already have policies in place that afford time off to new parents that meet or exceed the legal minimum. However, all employers would be well-advised to review their internal policies to ensure they meet the new mandatory entitlements, if they have not done so already. In particular, those employers who already have paternity leave benefits in place should ensure that their present policy covers all those employees who could qualify for the new statutory entitlement.
These enhanced leave rights are at the vanguard of a raft of changes to employment law that the Government has indicated that it wishes to bring forward. These include potential streamlining of the tribunal system, strengthening protection against violence and harassment in the workplace, and a new requirement that probationary periods should not be longer than is fair and reasonable.
Further potential initiatives still under consideration include employment protections for atypical workers, such as casual, temporary and part-time staff, and provisions to manage expectations as to the contacting of employees out of work hours. Employers would be prudent to keep informed and updated on any developments in this area, to allow them to plan and prepare accordingly.
First published in The Royal Gazette, Legally Speaking, November 2019
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