Czech parental leave policy poses obstacles for working moms

Women push strollers in Letna Park in Prague on Tuesday, May 12, 2015.

In America, the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 grants 12 weeks of unpaid maternity leave to women who working full-time at a company with more than 50 employees. In the Czech Republic, women – and men – can take up to four years off from work and receive a monthly allowance while at home.

Here’s how the policy works, according to the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs. A woman’s salary determines the amount of money she receives for maternity leave, the period of time a mother takes prior to birth and in the following weeks after birth. She receives 70 percent of her salary for 28 weeks beginning six to eight weeks prior to her due date. For parental leave, which begins after maternity leave ends, mothers and fathers who take parental leave receive the same allowance no matter what salary she or he makes or how long he or she decides to take off. Parents can receive a total allowance of 220,000 CZK, or $8,800, over a maximum of four years.

Although the Czech Republic’s parental leave policy may seem generous when compared to the leave policies in America, research illustrates the policy can pose significant obstacles to women. For mothers who also want a career, staying at home for years at a time after having a child can make it difficult to return to work, cause them to lose connection with their field or hinder their promotion trajectories.

A key problem associated with the policy is women’s ability to return to work after taking leave. Employers must hold a woman’s position for her, according to the policy, but for some employers the requirement can create challenges for both businesses and working mothers.

Blanka Dolezalova, financial manager at Transitions Online and a mother of two, sees the issue from a business perspective as well as a parent’s perspective. In many cases, if the mother chooses to return to work, she has options to do so, she says. “If you come back from maternity leave, the employer must keep your same position and salary,” she says, but even with that guarantee, mothers can still face obstacles when trying to return to work, Dolezalova says. “If you want to come back after parental leave, the employer must take you back, but only according to your labor contract.”

Dolezolova says many labor contracts use vague terms. For example, if your labor contract says “works in finance department” and you previously worked as a manager, you could get a job back but as an assistant in the finance department instead of a manager. Dolezalova also says employers may not cut a mother’s salary immediately after she returns from parental leave under a discrimination clause in the labor code, but after a month, the employer can legally cut her pay and the action is not considered discrimination.

From a business perspective, Dolezalova says the policy creates challenges for employers as well. “The code generally gives protection to the mothers and fathers,” she says. “Imagine you know that the employer will give back your position after one year, but then you decide to take another year. That’s tough on the employer to have to hold the same position for another year.”

Even if a mother has a flexible employer and can return to the same position after six months or a year, a lack of daycare options makes it difficult to do so if her child is under age 3. The Czech Republic had 1,043 care facilities for children under 3 in operation in 1990. In 2010, that number dropped to only 46 facilities, according to the European Union’s website. Fewer than 4 percent of children under 3 received any formal education in 2012. Nadia Strakova, a freelance editor and mother of one, says low birth rates in the 1990s contributed to the closing of many childcare facilities. Strakova, who was a teenager during the Velvet Revolution, says people her age waited longer to have children than the generation preceding hers. As a result, low demand for care in the 1990s caused facilities to shut down, and parents face the results today. Strakova says there are private daycare facilities for children under 3, but they come at a high price. There are some state-subsidized options for children 3-years-old and above.

Although men may take parental leave also, they rarely do so. According to 2011 data from the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs, only 1.8 percent of Czech fathers take parental leave.

Martin Svoboda, an editor in a publishing house in Prague and father of two, falls into that 1.8 percent category. He says there are a few reasons why men usually do not choose to go on paternity leave. He says conservative, traditional thinking that the father should work and the wife should stay home with the kids is one reason. Also, when parents discuss who will go on parental leave, they most likely settle on the person who brings in a lower salary, which is usually the woman.

Svoboda can attest to the low availability of childcare facilities as well.

“If you have a little child, the kindergarten will tell you, ‘Even though your kid is 3-years-old, we will give the position in the school to someone else since you have to stay home with your little kid anyway,’” he says.

Svoboda and his partner decided to take advantage of the policy by switching off going on leave from year to year. They have a 3-year-old and a 10-month-old. Svoboda works in publishing and his partner works at a theater. Both of their employers have given them flexible working options that allow them to stay connected with their jobs while at home with their kids. “I wouldn’t want my partner to stay at home for three or four years because she would be completely out of touch with her field,” he says.

Women also have difficulty returning to work because the Czech Republic has few part-time or work-from-home options.

In a study conducted by Gender Studies, a Czech-based non-profit that serves as an information, consulting and educational center of relations between men and women, seven Czech mothers shared their experiences of working and raising children in the Czech Republic and other European Union countries. According to the study, the Czech Republic has one of the lowest employment rates for women with children, and women in the Czech Republic stay home with their children longer than in any other EU country. The study attributes the low employment rate of mothers to lack of sufficient childcare facilities, part-time work options and shared leave with fathers.

Although many mothers manage to balance work and family life with the present policy, Svoboda says sharing the leave time could benefit more families. Michaela Marksová-Tominová, the current minister of the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs, also advocates for fathers to take advantage of the parental leave policy to alleviate some of the problems women face.

Svoboda attributes the ease with which he and his wife returned to work to how they’ve shared the parental leave time. “In our view, it’s much easier to carry the load of parenting,” Svoboda says. “To be honest, it’s a big change from when you’re single. It can take a toll on you, so with this switch plan that we decided on, it’s much more bearable. I would recommend it to people.”