Work-life balance directive

On 24 January 2019, within the framework of the European Pillar of Social Rights, the Commission, the European Council and the European Parliament agreed to adopt a proposal for a directive on work–life balance for parents and carers, first proposed in April 2017. The directive sets out to provide workers with additional leaves of absence in the interests of promoting a better work–life balance, a term used to describe an ideal state of equilibrium between an individual’s work and personal life. As described in Article 1, the directive:

Lays down minimum requirements designed to achieve equality between men and women with regard to labour market opportunities and treatment at work through facilitating the reconciliation of work and family life for working parents and carers.

The directive applies to all workers in each Member State of the EU, taking into account the case law of the Court of Justice of the European Union.

This new directive – adopted and published in June 2019 – repeals Directive 2010/18 on parental leave, which was the result of an agreement concluded by the European social partners. Member States are granted three years to transpose the new directive into their national regulation. Its flagship measure is to provide 10-day paternity leave – previously non-existent under EU law – which must be paid at least at the rate of sick pay, as opposed to normal salary level. Furthermore, the right to paternity leave ‘shall not be made subject to a period of work qualification or a length of service qualification’ and shall ‘be granted irrespective of marital or family status as defined in national law’.

Additional benefits of the new directive

While parental leave still stands at four months, two of these months may now be transferred to the other parent and will be paid in order to encourage uptake from men. Each Member State is able to make ‘the right to parental leave subject to a period of work qualification or a length of service qualification which shall not exceed one year’. Employees will be able to request flexible uptake, which is also left to Member States to define. In such cases, employers are required to consider and respond to such requests, ‘taking into account the needs of both employers and workers, and they shall justify any refusal of such a request in writing within a reasonable period following submission of the application’.

The new directive provides for a completely new carers’ leave of five days per year in the event of illness of a close relative. The directive does not stipulate that this must be paid, but Member States are encouraged to consider a suitable form of payment, again to encourage men to take up this entitlement. On implementation of the directive, Member States ‘may allocate leave over a reference period other than a year, per person in need of care or support, or per case’.

Parents and carers of children up to the age of eight have the right to request flexible working arrangements – such as reduced or modified hours or teleworking – with the guarantee that, at the end of the period of leave, they can return to the same or an equivalent job and their original working-time arrangements. Employers have to consider and respond to requests for flexible working arrangements within a reasonable period of time, taking into account the needs of both the employer and the worker – and they are required to justify any refusal or postponement of such a request. Member States may decide whether this right is subject to a period of work qualification or a length of service qualification, which shall not exceed six months.

For urgent family cases (accident or illness) in which the immediate presence of the parent or carer is indispensable, the worker may take time off work. This right is already provided for by the directive on parental leave and is maintained in the new directive.

Member States must also take the necessary measures to prohibit the dismissal, and all preparations for dismissal of workers, on the grounds that they have applied for, or have taken, one of these leaves of absence or have exercised the right to request flexible working arrangements. The directive thereby provides additional protection to employees.

Reaction to the directive

The European Commission sees this directive as ‘a huge step towards a more social Europe, which shows the true spirit of the Pillar of Social Rights’. The European Trade Union Confederation similarly considers ‘this first legislative output of the European Pillar of Social Rights to be a positive signal to EU citizens that Social Europe is alive and back on track’, although it regrets ‘the lengthy implementation period set’. BusinessEurope did not react when the directive was initially adopted, but has since considered the proposal an ‘outdated and one-sided vision of reconciliation, which does not fit with today’s reality of the workplace’.

On the other hand, Coface Families Europe, a network of civil society associations, is more measured in its response, describing the directive as ‘a step in the right direction’. However, it outlines a number of drawbacks: first, a lack of harmonisation in terms of pay, with decisions on payment for parental leave and carers’ leave left to Member States; and second, the restriction of rights, as Member States have the opportunity to introduce length of service requirements in order to qualify for this leave.

See also: equality between women and men gender equality maternity leave parental leave sick leave ;social pillar working time work–life balance.

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