World / Social Issues

Austrians push government for legally protected paternity leave for all fathers

AFP-JIJI

Austria’s leaders are coming under increasing pressure to grant statutory paternity leave to all fathers, despite fierce resistance in business circles.

Austria has allowed fathers to take an unpaid month off following the birth of their children — the “Papamonat” (“daddy’s month”) — since 2017, but at the employer’s discretion.

During the four weeks, the new dads receive €700 ($790) in social security payments — a right the country’s opposition parties want to extend to all fathers without the need for a boss’s approval.

The Social Democrats, Greens and liberal NEOS party are calling for the change, as well as the far-right Freedom Party (FPOe), the junior partner in the ruling coalition with Chancellor Sebastian Kurz’s conservatives.

Deputy Chancellor and FPOe chief Heinz-Christian Strache returned to work this week after taking a month off following the birth of his son, Hendrik, on Jan. 1.

“The time enables you as a father to form an important bond with your child, and it is really good,” the 49-year-old said.

More than 8 percent of new dads — 7,338 in all — took advantage of the Papamonat in 2018, and its supporters say demand is growing.

Nevertheless, the push for statutory paternity leave is putting the business-friendly ruling Austrian People’s Party (OeVP) in a difficult position.

Companies and employers point to the booming economy, in which unemployment is low at 4.7 percent but a lack of qualified personnel is beginning to make itself felt.

“It’s very difficult for a small company with only a few workers to cope with the prolonged absence of an employee,” argued Karlheinz Kopf, head of the employers’ association WKOe. “It’s an enormous challenge for SMEs,” small and medium-size enterprises. “These should not be penalized, as they form the backbone of the Austrian economy.”

OeVP Economy Minister Margarete Schramboeck agreed. “You can’t further penalize companies that already pay heavy welfare charges without threatening jobs,” she argued.

The OeVP and businesses point out the EU has already agreed to bring in paternity leave lasting a minimum of 10 days, during which the fathers would receive an equivalent amount to sick pay.

But the measure, which has yet to come into force, would not prevent Austria from going still further, observers say.

“Given the number of studies that prove the benefits of forming a close father-child bond very early on, there should be no question mark over the Papamonat,” said the head of the Austrian psychologists’ association BOeP, Beate Wimmer-Puchinger.

Opinion polls seem to suggest that the majority of Austrians are in favor of statutory paternity leave.

According to one poll carried out by Unique Research for the weekly magazine Profil, 56 percent said they definitely supported the Papamonat. A further 25 percent were in favor “in principle,” while only 10 percent were against it.

One Vienna-based dad, Daniel Bohmann, who heads Kinderfreunde, a group that lobbies for the interests of children and families, said he was looking forward to going on paternity leave.

“In a few days, I’m off on my Papamonat. It is fabulous and I’m looking forward to it. It would be even better if every father could do it,” he tweeted.