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Extending Postnatal Leave: Is it the Right Measure for the Pandemic? – Jeanne Lafortune (translation)

Article written by Jeanne Lafortune, Associate Professor and Director of Research UC Institute of Economics. Link Original article

The current legislative debate in Chile has focused on whether the extended postnatal leave project is constitutional or not. While this is a legitimate question, it has not allowed an in-depth discussion of the situation experienced by many parents since schools and kindergartens closed. Many families who are lucky enough to continue working have to imperfectly combine their employment obligations with those related to the care of their children. This has caused many children to not receive the attention they need for their cognitive and socio-emotional development while their parents find it difficult to do all the tasks that are expected from them at work.

What public policies can be implemented in response to this problem? The use of extended postnatal leave has been proposed as a solution, but it has its limitations. First, it targets a very limited number of parents whose children are "graduating" from the 24-week postnatal period. Second, and very importantly, the benefit is delivered only to mothers, replicating social norms that should be changed, rather than emphasizing the shared responsibility of all parents in raising children. Finally, it is limited to women who have been a contributor to the Fonasa / AFP (health and pension) system before their pregnancy, leaving many families without this type of protection.

What alternatives could be promoted? First, child care issues for essential workers must be addressed. If a health, military or other essential service worker is required to attend his or her job, he or she must receive a child care service. Pre-schools must be available for these workers. If not, we will have illegal pre-schools, such as the one discovered a couple of weeks ago in Macul (one of Santiago’s neighborhoods), or we will put some workers and their families in a very difficult situation. Second, a benefit should be provided to male parents as well  until child care is available again.

This benefit should satisfy some basic criteria. First, it has to be targeted to single-parent families or families where both parents are currently working. Second, it must be dependent on the age of the children: a baby requires more care than a preschool-age child, who requires more than children in basic education, which in turn requires more attention than children in secondary education. Special attention should be given to parents of children with disabilities. Third, it has to be limited to geographical areas and periods in which child care is not available. Fourth, efforts should be made not to create a bias towards working women and to encourage both parents to participate in childcare activities.

It seems to me that the best solution in this case is a mandated benefit where employers are obliged to give their workers a reduction in working hours until the child care issue is solved. Under this scheme, firms would have the obligation, just as they do for the lunch break of children up to 2 years old, to reduce the hours requested from their workers (both female and male). This hour reduction should be delivered partly in absolute reduction and partly in obligation to make the parents day more flexible (when this is possible). It would also be decreasing according to the age of the children. Clearly, that would imply additional costs for the firms, but it will have the benefit of making workers better able to focus on their work. And children inChile need to be cared for by something better than a cell phone or a television until "normality" returns.