Hanging out in airports and solving problems are part and parcel of the freelance business Jada De Luca has built for herself. At 22, she is healthy, active and hardworking. But sometimes period pain throws her well laid plans into chaos.
At 17, De Luca experienced a pain that was too much to bear. As the manager of a restaurant at the time, she was responsible for hosting a 200-person function. As if it was yesterday, she recalls the pain shooting up her body: “It was hot. I was sweating. I was stressed,” she says. Eventually, the pain became so intense that she passed out in front of everyone.
After this, she approached various medical practitioners and underwent multiple scans. She was in search of an explanation for the pain she felt that day, hoping to find a way to prevent it from happening again.
Despite her efforts, she still hasn’t been given a diagnosis. But based on her scans, some doctors have speculated she has endometriosis. “I keep getting told different things by different medical professionals,” she says.
The World Health Organisation describes endometriosis as a chronic disease that affects around 10 per cent of women and girls aged 15 to 49 globally. This disease results in uterus-like tissue growing outside of the uterus, causing severe pelvic pain during periods, sexual intercourse, bowel movements and/or urination.
De Luca manages her symptoms in two ways: taking the pill and taking time off work. But neither are sustainable. She describes the pill as a band-aid over a gash. “Whether I like it or not, after four months, it’s going to come,” she says. This is what’s called breakthrough bleeding. But when she tried going off the pill, she realised she couldn’t live without it.
On top of working as a freelancer, she also works a part-time job in retail. But when it comes to taking time off work in this economic climate, unpaid leave isn’t an option. There are times where she’s had to dip into her annual leave to support herself. Frustrated, she says, “I have lost a lot of money because of my period.”
Does anyone offer menstrual and menopausal leave?
The Victorian Women’s Trust has written guidelines for employers interested in offering menstrual and menopausal leave. This leave allows women to take paid leave if they are unable to perform their work duties because of symptoms such as cramps, and/or tiredness. VWT executive director Mary Crooks says: “This is all in an effort to make productive workers.”
In 1994, historian Melanie Ilic documented that menstrual leave was first introduced in 1922 in Soviet Russia. Five years later, it was abolished. This was based on a perception that it perpetuated discrimination against women, rather than working against it.
Earlier this year, journalist Niha Masih reported that only seven countries have legislated the policy, these include; Japan, Indonesia, South Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam, Zambia, and most recently, Spain. Each government varies in the way it implements the legislation.
Distinguishing between legislation and policy is important for this discussion. Legislation is legally binding and there are consequences in place to ensure these rules are upheld. Policies on the other hand, are much broader and are often introduced to address an agenda and propose strategies to achieve it.
Companies can implement menstrual and menopausal leave policies without being forced to by the law. Crooks says this number is growing in the Australian context but more effort is needed. VWT was one of the first Australian companies to implement this sort of policy back in 2017.
The Victorian Women’s Trust is leading the way
There are three parts to the VWT policy which Crooks says is an effort to promote wellbeing and flexible working conditions. The first part allows the employee to remediate on the spot. Whether it’s going for a walk or simply changing positions, it focuses on ensuring the worker’s comfort. The second part allows the employee to work from home if they feel they can still work productively. And finally, if the employee feels unwell and knows they can’t work effectively, they can use their menstrual/menopausal leave hours to take time off.
The team is small, comprised of nine women and two men. Since its introduction, Crooks says only 42 hours of leave have been taken. She acknowledges that each woman has a different experience of menstruation or menopause, so some women may use up more hours than others.
Although women are entitled to 12 days of menstrual and menopausal leave a year pro-rata, it is rare for all 12 to be used. “Our quantitative evidence suggests you could actually bring it down to half a dozen menstrual leave days a year,” Crooks says.
Communications manager Allyson Oliver-Perham has been with the trust for 14 years. Because taking leave is not stigmatised in the workplace, she is comfortable messaging the work group chat and honestly telling her colleagues she’ll taking menstrual leave that day. Oliver-Perham says she’s only used three days since the policy was introduced seven years ago.
The Trust hires casual workers or freelancers depending on the project but these workers aren’t entitled to the company’s menstrual and menopausal leave. Oliver-Perham says the casualisation of workers is an issue in itself and “it’s important to think of policies that are robust enough to look after the needs of anyone, regardless of employment tier.”
The Australian Context
In Australia, there are a variety of leave types. Whether you want to go on a holiday, are feeling unwell, or have community service commitments, there is most likely something already in place for you. Menstrual and menopausal leave is not on this list, although menopausal symptoms diagnosed by a doctor are included in the examples of reasons people may take sick leave on the fairwork.gov.au website.
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the percentage of women hired under casual arrangements has remained higher than men for decades. Although the disparity has become smaller in recent years, it begs the questions, what impact will the introduction of menstrual and menopausal leave have on this trend?
This is the main concern of those who argue against legislating this type of leave.
Australians hired under casual agreements aren’t entitled to the benefits of paid leave. These are reserved for longer term contract and permanent workers. The Fair Work Ombudsman states full-time employees are enititled to 10 days of paid sick leave annually, while part-timers are on a pro-rata basis. This leave accumulates if the employee chooses not to use their hours as the balance carries over to the next year.
Heron says introduction of the leave shouldn’t affect women’s rate of employability. She compares the questions and concerns to those raised when maternity leave was first introduced in the 1970s.
Who is Jessica Heron?
Being a hairdresser involves clients relying on you when they’re booked in, making the task of calling in sick, a challenging one. This is how Jessica Heron felt during her teenage years working as a hairdresser. There were days she had extremely painful cramps which led to vomiting and, at times, fainting. When this feeling coincided with her job, she had no option but to endure the pain.
After the pain had passed, she’d come back out and get on with the rest of her shift.
This is the woman leading the campaign for menstrual and menopausal leave in Australia.
After working for a year in Myanmar as a foreign development consultant, Heron found her passion for law and the justice system. She realised this path would have the greatest impact on the advancement of society which led her to apply to study for a Juris Doctor at Monash University. In 2020, she started practising law at Maurice Blackburn.
In June 2022, through organic conversations between Heron, her colleague Mackenzie Wakefield and their union clients, the idea of menstrual and menopausal leave was developed.
“There was a common theme of women experiencing painful periods and menopause symptoms, and how that was disruptive to their work days.”Jessica Heron
Heron is working alongside a team seeking to incorporate this policy in legislation, under the Australian Fair Work Act. While unions are on the ground, talking to their members and collecting data, the team at Maurice Blackburn is providing guidance, informing unions about the practicalities and legalities of terms.
Australia’s menstrual and menopausal leave campaign
The campaigners hope to achieve their goal of legislating the policy before the next federal election in 2025.
Heron says industries with a smaller proportion of females, like construction, are easier to win over than industries with more female workers. She says employers in these industries think that any concerns they have about the policy only affects a small portion of their labour force and therefore disruption will be minimal.
Workplaces with higher proportions of female workers often require more convincing. The campaign team offers these businesses things like cost to the economy reports and cost to the company reports to push them over the line.
Heron says talking to people in workplaces is also important because all the rights and entitlements won’t do much if the stigma around the subject isn’t addressed. “If there is stigma associated with actually availing yourself of those entitlements, you might not use them even if they are provided,” she says.
For De Luca, legislating this policy would be a symbolic way to acknowledge women and their hardships. But she says attitudes towards leave and the nature of taking time off already varies significantly between workplaces. She wonders how different employers would handle a type of leave exclusive for those who experience menstruation and menopause. “I think menstrual leave would be fantastic. But you’ve also got to consider the society we live in,” she says. “It’s a patriarchal society.”
While De Luca thinks that this is an important factor to consider. She wonders how the campaign is going to guarantee that the policy will benefit women, rather than hinder their ability to find work.