Consumer Champion: Maternity benefits give new mums the crucial time to bond with their babies
Springtime is a lovely time to have a baby. Your maternity leave stretches ahead of you with the promise of long, sunny days and months of bonding time with your new infant. Unless you're self- employed, that is.
The reality of how the State treats its employed and self-employed citizens differently was again made starkly clear when RTE's Jennifer Maguire (inset) announced she'd only be taking 10 weeks off when her first baby, due any day now, arrives. It's not because she's intent on being some super-mum who puts her career first, but because, quite simply, she 'can't afford' to take any more.
Being an independent contractor, she doesn't qualify for maternity benefits from the broadcaster. Staff, on the other hand, can take a full 26 weeks off and many employers 'top up' salaries of their female employees on maternity leave, meaning they can spend a full six months or more getting used to their busy new role without worrying about money.
The Government does pay maternity benefits of course through the PRSI system, but the hoops to jump through are much higher for self-employed people, for no apparent reason. So, a PAYE worker needs only to have paid 39 weeks contributions in a year to qualify for the €230 per week payment while a self-employed woman has to have made 52. She may also be required to submit accounts to prove her earnings.
Jennifer has always been self-employed and isn't moaning. "That's just the way it is", she says. However, it does seem unfair, particularly as a baby doesn't know, or care, what its mum's working schedule is.
Here are the other rules linked to Maternity Benefit:
l The maximum length the benefit will be paid for is 26 weeks. If you can afford to, you may take a further 16 weeks unpaid, directly after this.
l You can engage in voluntary work or education during maternity leave, but not paid work, or your benefit stops. You can't 'top up' the benefit with even temporary or part-time paid employment.
l Maternity benefit has been taxed from 1 July 2013, however it is not subject to PRSI or USC deductions.
l An employer may: top up your benefit to full salary; pay full salary and ask for the benefit to be sent to them directly or pay full salary while you return the benefit to them.
l There is no requirement on an employer to 'top up' salaries for someone on maternity leave, although many do.
l Revenue will receive details of any maternity payments you receive from the Department of Social Protection and tax will be calculated accordingly.
You are entitled to free mother and baby care from the State irrespective of whether you have a medical card, private insurance or neither. This includes:
- Combined GP and hospital obstetrician care for one pre-week 12 visit, five further visits during pregnancy and two post-natal visits (at weeks 2 and 6). If you have a chronic illness (e.g. diabetes), you are entitled to 5 more visits.
- A public health nurse will also visit at week 6 free of charge.
- You are entitled to have your baby delivered at a public hospital, for free also with no in-patient charges levied.
Law the best blocker for sunbed sinners
I often write here about the things you should do to make holidays in the sun safer and better value, but one of them is never tanning before you go, unless it's out of a bottle.
I'm a Factor 50 girl myself and am conscious more than ever as I get older of the dangers of sun exposure. Don't get me wrong - I love the heat and a few days away under a hot sun does wonders - but I always keep my skin protected.
I've never been a fan of sunbeds and was delighted when they were banned for under 18s a couple of years ago, especially after extraordinary stories appeared about children as young as seven being exposed to them for a 'Communion tan' - crazy!
Now Health Minister Leo Varakdar has taken further steps to save even adults from themselves when it comes to the dangers of skin cancer.
From next Monday salons will no longer be able to advertise happy hours, i.e. cut-price tanning sessions. Free trials and unlimited use periods will also be banned and salons will have to display warning signs about the dangers of their products.
Skin cancer (melonoma) is the fastest growing cancer type in Ireland with 850 new cases every year. I know many people think it's "just a mole" and that it's easily treated, but 150 people die every year from melanoma.
With new salons opening all the time and prices from as little as 75c per minute, I'm all for further regulation, if not an outright ban.
Whizz kids get chance to win top money tips
I'm always telling readers to get on top of money and debt issues, but sometimes it can be too late! Adults often learn the hard way about these things, so I'm delighted to see a new initiative, www.MoneyWhizz.org, bringing these simple lessons into the classroom for Senior Cycle students.
These online lessons, with interactive Q&As, show teenagers how to benefit from learning how money works before they get swamped by student loans, credit card debt and banks hounding them for business.
There are 10 lessons in all and 35 schools have signed up. MoneyWhizz has offered a full set to me for free to give to one lucky Herald reader's secondary school, so if you want yours in with a chance, email me on email@example.com with one budgeting tip for teens before midnight this Wednesday. I'll announce the winner next week.