Early return to work while on parental leave

During uncertain times, employees who are on parental leave may face financial difficulty and want to return to work earlier than planned.

In response, employers need to act in good faith and be as flexible as possible, to make sure that an employee’s early return benefits both parties. While an employee is on parental leave and may be receiving parental leave payments, it is important to specify whether the employee’s return to work is temporary or permanent.

Returning to work temporarily

Keeping in touch

If the employer agrees, an employee can go back to paid work on occasional days, for example, to attend a team day or change announcement while they are on parental leave. These are called 'keeping in touch' days, to help employees stay connected with their employer. However, an employee:

  • can only do a total of 64 hours or less of paid work during their parental leave payment period, and
  • cannot work within the first 28 days after their child is born.

If these two conditions are not met, the employee is considered back at work permanently and will lose their parental leave payments. Any payments received after they’ve been considered back at work are treated as an overpayment, which needs to be paid back to Inland Revenue.

Temporary return to work during COVID-19

During COVID-19, there have been temporary changes made to the parental leave law, which allows some workers to go back to work temporarily without losing their remaining entitlement to parental leave, and its associated payments and protections.

To be eligible for this temporary return to work, the employee must be a 'COVID-19 response worker' – this means that for reasons related to the COVID-19 outbreak, there is unusually high demand for workers in their role, or their skills, experience or qualifications mean that nobody else can fill their role. Eligible employees can return to work for up to 12 weeks, and then go back on parental leave. 

Temporary changes to parental leave

Returning to work permanently

Generally, employees on parental leave can only go back to work early if employers agree. In some cases, an employee may be able to return early without their employer’s agreement if:

  • they or their spouse or partner are no longer the primary carer of the child, or
  • the child is miscarried, stillborn or dies.

Regardless, the employee would need to write to their employer at least 21 days before the date they want to return to work.

Managing an employee's return to work

To help make an employee’s return to work as easy as possible, there are a few considerations for both the employee and the employer:

  • The employee should tell their employer as soon as they can of their intention to go back to work so that employer can plan their workforce accordingly.
  • The employee should decide what’s right for them in their circumstances and negotiate with their employer, consider the needs of the organisation and what support they can offer for the employer. In response, the employer should consider all requests in good faith and be as flexible as possible, under the guidance of the parental leave and employment laws.
  • If the employee wants to work from home, it is important to consider issues such as health and safety, privacy and security, and put everything agreed in writing such as who will pay for work-related costs like phone calls, how long the arrangement will last and any timeframes for review to avoid any misunderstandings.
  • The employee should look at possible options for childcare and make sure availability fits with work requirements. The employer, on the other hand, should be flexible with the employee as they’re adjusting back to the workplace. The employer should let the employee know any specific workplace policies supporting flexible working and familiarise themselves with the flexible working provisions in the Employment Relations Act 2000.
  • If relevant, the employee should discuss with their employer how to continue breastfeeding when they return to work. So far as is reasonable and practicable, the employer has to make sure there are appropriate facilities in the workplace and breaks for the employee to do this (the breaks don’t need to be paid). 
  • The employee should plan for contingencies such as who will look after a sick child. The employer should be aware that the employee’s sick leave can be taken if their dependent child is sick. 

In all circumstances, both employers and employees are obliged to deal with each other in good faith at all times. If there are problems related to parental leave, Employment New Zealand can help resolve them.

Sorting out parental leave problems