I’d like to discuss, briefly, the pros and cons of paying an employee while off work to care for their ill pet; usually a cat or dog. The topic is in the press at the moment and Elisa wrote about it recently. An Italian lady was fortunate enough to be in receipt of paid leave when her dog was ill. We all know about maternity leave. This is called pet-ernity leave or paw-ternity leave. I like that. I like the idea of allowing cat and dog owners to take time off and to be treated as if they are on maternity leave. It signifies a formal shift to the concept that pets are members of the family. We know that they are but in legal terms they are not.
At present, most pet owners will throw a sickie if they have to stay with their pet when he or she is ill. But you can’t do that every time because your employer will become sick of you! Apparently, a survey indicates that almost 50% of pet owners are forced to take time off after the death of a pet because they are heartbroken. Interestingly 65% of owners took time off (as part of their holiday) to attend a veterinary appointment but a quarter of those would not admit to the reason for their absence. Pet owners feel stigmatised for asking for time off. Often employees don’t give the real reason for taking time off because they think they will be laughed at. This indicates that the world is not quite ready for pet-ernity leave.
The crux of the matter is whether we treat pets as family members to the point where their status is enshrined in the law inline with the laws governing maternity leave. It is probably too early to expect employers to accept an obligation to pay employees while they are looking after their pet. We are heading in that direction but we are not there yet. There are commercial aspects. Maternity rights have been extended in the UK. Small businesses cannot afford to lose employees for short or long terms because it substantially upsets the efficiency of the business and places an extra burden on them which in a highly competitive world needs to be avoided or minimized. Extended maternity leave is tough for a small business. To add pet-ernity leave would be the straw that broke the camel’s back. That would be the argument from businesses.
On the other side of the coin, cats and dogs genuinely are regarded as members of the family by, I would guess, a substantial majority of pet owners. Therefore why should they not be given the time, beyond ordinary holiday leave, to look after their pet when ill? Many people prefer animals to humans. Many people do not have children but have a cat or dog who they regard as a child and who provides as much emotional support as a child would. The support provided by a companion animal makes the person a more productive employee.
There is an issue which I think needs to be brought to the fore. It is likely that if legislation is enacted to allow pet owners to take paid leave then it would normally be women who took advantage of it. This is because in families, the woman often earns less than the man and therefore she would be more obliged to take time off if the amount paid was a fraction of the employee’s normal salary. The financial loss to the family would be smaller.
Consequently the burden might fall on women more than men, in which case it may jeopardise women’s position in the workplace. Years had been spent trying to achieve equality of pay for women in the workplace. If people were allowed pet-ernity leave, and if women normally took advantage of it, employers would be less likely to employ women and that would be unfair. It would be a knock back for women’s rights.