Austrian survey reveals patterns of parental leave

The proportion of women with an entitlement to parental leave benefits has been rising in Austria, whilst the proportion of those who are neither employed nor have any entitlement to benefits at the end of parental leave has been declining. The percentage taking up employment immediately after the end of parental leave has been stable at about one third. A longer duration of parental leave increases the share of women moving seamlessly from one parental leave period to the next. The role of measures giving protection against dismissal after a return to work is still not clear. These are among the findings of a new survey, published in 1998.

Commissioned by the Public Employment Service (Arbeitsmarktservice, AMS), the Institute of Demographics at the Austrian Academy of Sciences (Österreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften, ÖAW) has produced a detailed study on the use and effects of parental leave. The legislation on parental leave has been changed several times in recent years, and this triggered the research interest. In particular, in mid-1990 entitlement to parental leave was lengthened from one year to two, and in 1995 it was reduced to one and a half years except in cases where the husband takes leave for at least six months (TN9801201S). The latter change was not part of the study however, as the social security data on which it was based ended in 1994.

The ÖAW study focuses on: the employment careers of women who gave birth in 1985, 1990 or 1991, using the evidence of social security data drawn from between 1972 and 1994; and on 3,029 men who received parental leave benefits sometime between 1990 and 1994. In addition, 405 women receiving benefits after giving birth in 1991 and 66 men receiving benefits some time between 1990 and 1994 were surveyed by questionnaire, and 20 women and 10 men were interviewed in depth.

Benefit entitlement

Of the women giving birth in 1985, 60% received parental leave benefits. By 1990 the percentage had risen to 68%, and by 1991 to 71%. This was due, in particular, to a greater proportion of women having an entitlement after their second or third birth; this had risen from 51% in 1985 to 67% in 1991 for second births and from 27% to 41% for third births. Entitlement is dependent on being employed or being registered as unemployed at the time of conception. The amount of the benefit is not mean- tested. However, if household income is below a certain level a supplement is paid. In 1985, 28.8% of the women giving birth were awarded the supplement and a further 0.4% after the partner's income was taken into account. These percentages had risen to 34.5% and 9.6% respectively in 1991. Of all women receiving parental leave benefits between 1990 and 1994, 52.7% also received the supplement for at least part of their time on leave.

Return to work

According to the questionnaire survey, at the end of parental leave half the women receiving benefits had an entitlement to return to their job. Of the women who had no such right, 41% had quit the formal employment relationship themselves, while: 11% had helped out occasionally at the place of their employment while on leave; 6% were employed in a minor way, that is, for less than 13 hours per week, while on leave; and 6% had used opportunities for further education or training. Some 58.5% of the women were temporarily replaced during their absence on leave. There was no correlation between temporary replacement and termination of employment while on leave.

According to social security data, of all women giving birth in 1985, 35% were employed immediately after their benefit entitlement expired. This was also true of 32% of the women giving birth in the first half of 1990. In 1991, when the duration of parental leave was doubled, the percentage was 33%. The study interprets these changes as insignificant. After births between mid-1990 and end-1991, 51% took up work before the child turned three. After births in the second half of 1990, 64% took up work before the child turned four. A relatively big push, 7%, occurs at about the time the child turns three - this is obviously linked with kindergarten age. Of the women with 1991 births, 17% continued to receive benefits at the end of 1994 due to a second birth since then. Since benefit entitlements after the end of parental leave were also expanded, the share of women who were neither employed nor receiving any benefits after the end of parental leave was reduced from 45% after a 1985 birth to 24% after a 1991 birth.

The situation in 1991 can be sketched like this:

  • 71% of all births were followed by parental leave benefits;
  • of these people, 82% had been employed, 18% registered unemployed;
  • of the employed, 37% returned to work immediately after their benefit entitlement expired (in 1993) - 40% among white-collar workers, 31% among blue-collar workers; and
  • of those returning immediately, 61% were re-employed with their previous employer and therefore enjoyed protection from dismissal for four weeks

Women working part time after their return are employed by a new employer disproportionately often; while women returning to their previous employer disproportionately often express a wish for reduced working time.

There is a small group of women who opt for part-time parental leave. They made up only 1.4% of the benefit recipients after 1991 births. In this group the return to work was much more frequent, at about 75%, most of them to their previous employer.

Employment stability

About one quarter of the women returning to work lost or quit their job within six months. This did not change between 1985 and 1991. Those remaining after more than six months enjoyed greater employment stability when they returned after two years of parental leave in 1993 than after one year of absence in 1986 or early 1991. The study did not examine the influence of the business cycle on these changes or of the (possibly improved) availability of childcare facilities. After 1985 births, employment stability was greater after a return to the previous employer. Some 30% of the women joining a new employer lost their job in less than six months but this was true of only 24% of the women returning to the previous employer. There were significant differences between white-collar and blue-collar workers. Of the latter, 38% lost their job in less than six months with a new employer and 30% with the previous one. The shares were only 24% and 20% in the case of white-collar workers. While the differences between blue-collar and white-collar workers remained in later years, the difference between new and old employers was eroded once the duration of parental leave was lengthened.

Since the duration of parental leave benefits was extended to two years in mid-1990, the main reason for the cessation of an employment spell during the first two months after the return to work was a renewed pregnancy. At all times since 1985, women losing or quitting their jobs during the fourth or fifth month had an entitlement to unemployment benefits. In most cases when a woman remained employed for more than a year, a renewed pregnancy was the reason for the subsequent cessation of employment.

Of some importance to the research was the question of what happens at the end of the four weeks' dismissal protection period. The results show that, indeed, the four weeks are a critical point in time, but this is true regardless of whether the protection clause applies or not. In fact, employment termination is more frequent in the case of new employers (where there is no protection) than in the case of previous ones. Blue-collar workers are much more likely to be without a job after one month than their white-collar counterparts. In the survey of 405 women, according to preliminary results, 13% of those who had returned to work said they were dismissed at the end of the protection period or were induced to quit themselves. The social security data show that only about 5% lose or quit their job at that time.

Commentary

Politically, the most sensitive aspect of parental leave is currently protection against dismissal. Women's organisations in the trade unions and the Social Democrat Party have strongly advocated a lengthening of the period of protection from four weeks to 26, so far to no avail. The role of dismissals and of resignations could not yet be clarified, although the data seem to hold the potential for doing so. Much less political attention is being paid to the take-up of the return to work itself. This is because the unusual length of parental leave benefits in Austria has always been conceived as a measure to reduce the labour market participation of women. Interestingly, though, doubling the duration of the benefit entitlement has had no impact on the likelihood of returning to work.

Sorely lacking at this point is an integration of the results of the three data sources. This will be crucial to reap the benefits of the study. There are likely to be substantial differences between urban, suburban and rural areas. These would be worth exploring, since national policy tends to be made from an urban point of view. (August Gächter, IHS)

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