Prime Minister Antti Rinne's government plans to reform Finland's policy of maternity and paternity leave to a model that would allow longer paternity leaves and encourage equal distribution of parental responsibilities.
"The government programme basically commits to the introduction of some kind of 5+5+5 model," says Heli Järvinen, a Green MP who took part in the government formation talks that led up to the five-party coalition's agenda.
In the proposed reform, the maternity leave granted when a child is born would be extended from its current level of slightly more than four months to five months. Parental leave for fathers would be brought up to five months – up from the slightly more than two months of paternal leave.
Both of these five-month options would be reserved exclusively for each parent - in other words, leave not used by one parent cannot be transferred to the other.
In addition to those two five-month periods, another five months of parental leave would be made available for parents to divide as they see fit.
System allows for child home care up to age of three
Centre Party representatives have pointed out, however, that the third period of leave actually works out to closer to six months if the government succeeds in its bid to preserve the overall duration of maternal leave. In this case, the planned model would be closer to 5+5+6 months.
"These are our starting parameters; we will discuss things more as negotiations move forward," Social Affairs and Health Minister Aino-Kaisa Pekonen of the Left Alliance said.
"I personally feel the 5+5+maybe 6 model is a great step. I've earlier advocated for a 6+6+6 model, in line with my party, but the financial framework naturally sets its own challenges. But we'll set out to improve the system, where families will make their own decisions and choose how to use their parental leave," Pekonen added.
Finland's child care policies allow one parent to stay at home and care for small children for up to three years. After maternity and paternity leave, one of the parents can continue to care for the child at home without fear of losing his or her job.
Maternity, paternity and parental allowances account for 70 percent of the recipient's salary, while a child home care allowance consists of a basic benefit amount from the state and an additional amount based on the recipient's salary. Some municipalities pay an additional municipal child care supplement, as well.
Reform based on EU directives
Centrist Minister of Science and Culture Annika Saarikko noted that EU directives requiring five months of maternity leave provided a foundation for the reform.
"EU directives define the duration of maternity leave and impose national obligations on us. It is therefore an important part of the road map of principles that the government developed on the basis of tripartite talks. On the other hand, the most important issue for the Centre Party is that the current level of maternity leave is not reduced," she added.
Estimates about the cost of the leave expansion range from tens to hundreds of millions of euros. Most of the added costs will be covered by Finland's employers and employees, as the relevant daily allowances that safeguard the family’s finances during these initial periods of leave are primarily funded by insurance contributions on earned income.
The state will end up having to pay only a small percentage of the total expenditure, and Saarikko said that there is no intention to increase the state's contribution at this point.
Growing interest in paternity leave
Researcher Johanna Lammi-Taskula from the National Health and Welfare Institute (THL) said that experience shows that fathers are more likely to take time off to be with their young children when leave periods are extended.
"Taking three weeks to be at home at the same time as the mother became popular as early as the 1990s," she added.
After more time was added to paternity leave in 2003, the number of men staying home with their small children increased steadily. Lammi-Taskula noted that currently about half of new fathers take advantage of the full paternity available.
"These days when children are born, four out of five dads take two weeks of paternity leave concurrently with the mums. In addition, about half of dads take some additional leave, but not necessarily the full six weeks they're entitled to," she continued.
The THL researcher pointed out that very few mothers do not take the initial maternal leave that they are entitled to, and the majority of the additional days that can be used by either the mum or dad is generally used by the mother.
"A very small percentage of fathers take this secondary leave. The situation has been the same for a long time," Lammi-Taskula remarked.
She said that the new government's proposal could help halt Finland's declining birth rates, as it gives a clear signal that the state is willing to invest in the interests of new parents. A better division of child care responsibilities could influence how parents view the prospect of combining careers with raising more children, she noted.
Economist: Employment levels might suffer
Nordea Bank economist Olli Kärkkäinen predicted that the government's idea to offer expanded parental leaves will have a negative effect on employment figures.
"The reform would certainly not improve employment levels," he declared, adding however that the government never implied that it would, but focused on the potential to improve wellbeing and gender equality.
"The government has also committed to compensating for any reforms that negatively impact on employment with reforms in other areas," he concluded.