Maternity-leave bill advances won't change much

Highly touted maternity-

Though sponsors declared it an "important piece of legislation" that would allow for a longer maternity leave, the Knesset on Wednesday approved in preliminary reading a bill that - for most working mothers - would simply maintain the status quo. Kadima faction head MK Dalia Itzik co-sponsored, together with MK Tzippi Hotovely (Likud), the bill that they said would officially extend maternity leave to half a year. The bill passed the preliminary reading by a vote of 60-1, with one abstention. "Soon, every woman will be able take a half-year of maternity leave," promised Kadima Spokesman Shmulik Dahan in a statement circulated shortly after the bill passed. "This is an important bill that for the first time transfers the power and the right to determine the length of her maternity to the working women," said Itzik. "From today onward, society's perception, both among employees and employers, will be that maternity leave is a half-year," Itzik said. "This is a clear societal and family-related message that will balance out the built-in tension between career and motherhood, and puts into the hands of working women the possibility to extend or shorten their maternity leave, up to six months, without fearing dismissal."   But even in Kadima's announcement, the small print said it all. "At this stage, due to the heavy costs of extending maternity leave, it is proposed to add in the National Insurance Institute Law that beneficiaries will be entitled to receive payments for the 14-week period alone, as currently prevails. This way, the [new] law will entail no financial costs," the statement said.   The bottom line, then, is that nothing much would change if the bill becomes law. Under the current law, mothers are entitled to 14 weeks of paid maternity leave, some of which may be taken by the father instead. Women who have been employed by the same employer for over 24 months may extend their maternity leave past those 14 weeks to an unpaid period of no more than one-quarter of the total number of months that they have been employed. Thus, the only group that stands to gain from this new bill are women who worked less than two years at the same employer prior to their maternity leave. In any case, employers are already forbidden from firing their employees for at least 60 days after their return from maternity leave, including unpaid maternity leave, unless they can get a special permit to do so from the Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry. When pressed on their support for the bill, a number of MKs who supported it acknowledged that they hadn't closely studied it, but had voted in accordance with faction discipline. The bill's sole detractor, MK Michael Ben-Ari, a father of seven, said that he opposed the bill because it would make employers "think twice" before hiring a woman who could be absent for six months. "I know how to compensate for a month of reserves here and there, but six months is different," said Ben-Ari.