The pitter-patter of tiny feet could have an unexpected impact on offshore operations, according to oil and gas employment expert Katie Williams.
New laws which allow the sharing of parental leave following the birth of a baby could disrupt shift patterns and lead to staff shortages in specialist roles. Traditionally men would take a few weeks off work following a birth but the new rules, introduced in December, mean couples can now share up to 50 weeks leave for any child born on or after 5 April 2015.
Katie Williams, an Aberdeen based partner at legal firm Pinsent Masons, said that the new legislation could play havoc with shift patterns in the North Sea where key staff operate on rotational basis such as three weeks on/off.
New fathers working offshore will theoretically be able to request a three-week leave of absence to follow their onshore “field break” period, meaning they could be absent from work for a much longer period, which could then be repeated during the first year of the baby’s birth. Up to three periods of leave can be requested.
Katie Williams explained: “This is a major change in the way the UK looks at parental rights and it is to be welcomed but employers in the offshore energy sector could face significant logistical disruption. It also comes at a difficult time for employers who are already under huge pressure to reduce costs and increase efficiency. There is provision for mothers and fathers to take blocks of leave, and against a background of offshore rotation this could create some real difficulties for employers who rely on matching the right skills set on back-to-back shifts.”
Parents taking advantage of the new rules only have to give eight weeks’ notice of intended leave and it’s open for the father to take all of the 50-week allowance which was previously the mother’s entitlement.
Other problems could arise for employers who pay enhanced maternity rates, which is particularly common in the oil and gas sector. New fathers who opt to take parental leave could argue that they are entitled to receive the same enhanced pay rates which are normally paid to female employees on maternity leave.
Ms Williams added: “There is a potentially huge cost issue, as employers usually have large volumes of men in their workforce compared to women, and therefore running an enhanced maternity pay scheme was not cost-prohibitive. Employers need to decide if they will apply the same enhanced pay rules for fathers on shared leave, and if they don’t that could lead to accusations of sex discrimination.
“This is one of the most significant changes in employment law in some years and businesses need to get their head around this new legislation. Employers need to look at existing policies on parental leave and come up with a strategy on dealing with the logistical problems of potentially having key staff absent for long or intermittent periods of time. The new rights apply for parents expecting babies in April, so time is running out for employers to make these decisions.”