Feds eye changes to rules around parental leave

Looking into dedicated leave for fathers: Labour minister
By Liz Bernier
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 05/18/2016

The federal government may soon unveil significant changes to rules around parental leaves — and there may be a dedicated leave for fathers introduced into the mix.

Labour Minister MaryAnn Mihychuk said she is interested in creating a dedicated paternity leave under the employment insurance program. 

“I’m open to promoting some fairly large changes in that whole sector because families have a tough time — especially when you have preschoolers,” she said in an interview with the Canadian Press. “And if you have children under two, it’s a real challenge for those families so I think we want to modernize the system.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has spoken on the subject at the United Nations, saying changes would be made with an eye toward gender equality in the workplace and increasing opportunities for women.

Dads only

Dedicating a specific portion of parental leave specifically to fathers could be a good strategy toward levelling the gender playing field in the workplace, said Linda Duxbury, professor at the Sprott School of Business at Carleton University in Ottawa. 

“Right now, men can take it — men can but don’t. So they have to provide some kind of incentive,” she said.

  

Having a portion of the leave specifically available for men would change the conversation in families, said Duxbury. 

“(Men) don’t take leave because it’s easier in some ways to continue the way it’s always been, which is to have women take it. But I think if we really want to level the playing field within the labour market, (we need this). Women of a certain age are always in some ways thought of by their employer as a ticking time bomb — they could have a baby at any time… But they don’t see men the same way,” she said. 

“If men (also take parental leave), then we’re going to change the optics within the workplace.”

Quebec already has a dedicated paternity leave in place, under which fathers are allowed to take five weeks of leave with 70 per cent of their salaries covered by the provincial system. 

“In Quebec, the uptake is higher than in the rest of Canada. We know, for example, that fathers in Quebec use the program much more than fathers in the rest of Canada because they have their own provincial program,” said Janet Dassinger, researcher at the Canadian Union of Public Employees in Toronto.

“Where the income replacement is high and where the program allows both parents to be off at the same time or to share the leave, the uptake is higher.”

There’s been a higher uptake in Quebec likely because of the increased flexibility, said Spinks. 

“The leaves are much more flexible than anywhere else in the country.”

Increasing parental benefits 

During the federal election, the Liberals had promised to increase parental benefits under employment insurance from 12 months to 18 months, said Nora Spinks, CEO of the Vanier Institute of the Family in Ottawa.

“When you hear about the extension from 12 months to 18 months, people immediately jump to the conclusion that that means women are going to be gone for 18 months. But that’s not our understanding of the intent of this policy change,” she said. 

“What they’re doing is a couple of things. One is trying to align leaves with child care. So if you go back to work at 12 months, then your child is in infant care for six months, and then they go to toddler care at 18 months.

“If your child is in centre-based care, that can be disruptive, and for a family, that can be another adjustment that needs to be made.”

The federal Liberals are also hoping to encourage more men to take time off for parental leaves, said Spinks. 

“We know that men outside of Quebec are not taking parental leave in a big way… What we’re seeing with that 12 to 18 months is that they’re looking at getting more flexibility. So the first thing (the government) is going to do is engage in a consultation that’s going to go on across the country over the next couple of months.” 

The provincial and territorial ministers of labour are planning on meeting in the fall to look at what the implications may be, she said. 

“When we think about maternity or parental benefits, there’s really three key elements: there’s the benefits, there’s the leave and then there’s the employer support. So the benefits are what is going to be extended, which means the provinces need to align their employment legislation to align with the benefits,” she said. 

“The third element is what the employers contribute, so that’s top-up, flexibility, gradual return-to-work.”

Concerns, comparisons

Some employers might have concerns around employees taking longer leaves, leaving the workplace short-staffed, said Spinks. 

“(But) we had a similar discussion with employers and unions and families when the parental leave portion was expanded to 35 weeks, to give a total of 12 months. So it’s not the first time,” she said. 

The most recent change was when compassionate care leave was expanded, which came into effect this past January, she said. 

“People were afraid that was going to cause all kinds of havoc in the workplace — and it really hasn’t.”

In looking to Quebec and Scandinavian countries with similar systems in place, dedicated paternity leave seems to result in a much higher uptake by fathers, said Dassinger. 

“We know from comparisons with other OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries and with Quebec that whether fathers take leave is dependent on the program itself. So where the income replacement is highest, we know that the uptake is greatest,” she said. “If we look at the Scandinavian countries, for example, Iceland, Norway and Sweden offer somewhere between nine months and 68 weeks at an income replacement of about 80 or 90 per cent — sometimes as high as 100 per cent in Norway. And they have participation rates starting at 80 per cent.

“So, obviously, the more the benefit resembles the wage, the more likely the father is to take a leave.” 

In Sweden, it’s actually quite common for men to take parental leave, said Duxbury. 

“When you’re walking around in the park, you’ll see as many men as women with strollers… you don’t see that here and that’s because of societal attitudes.” 

Involving fathers in parental leave can have critical impacts, said Martha Friendly, executive director of Child Care Canada in Toronto. 

“Canada has been the lowest ranking country in the Unicef report card on child care. In 2008, (the report) was on early childhood education and care, and there were 10 quantitative points (on which) all the countries were ranked or assessed. And one of them was on maternity/parental leave, and Canada was marked down because it did not have paternity leave,” she said. 

“It’s very important precisely because it does get fathers involved.”

Obviously, we have to think carefully about how we word “paternity leave” because there is same-sex marriage in Canada and the concept shouldn’t be exclusive or hetero-centric, she said. 

But with that in mind, paternity leave can have a significant and positive impact on gender equality, said Dassinger. 

“In countries like Scandinavian countries where the program is used, there’s more gender equality. That starts to shift the burden of domestic labour disproportionately off of women, and has men carrying out more child care and more domestic labour. It also helps women advance in the workforce because their jobs are guaranteed when they go back,” she said. “And it’s normal — it’s normalized to have both parents taking parental leave.”

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