A review of collective bargaining agreements, employment contracts and benefit plans is in order at Canadian organizations, following a federal announcement that changes to employment insurance (EI) benefits will take effect Dec. 3.
The updates to EI caregiving benefits will apply across the country, while the alterations to maternity and parental benefits will apply everywhere but Quebec, which follows the Quebec Parental Insurance Plan, said Andrew Brown, acting director of general EI policy at Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC).
While all provincial and territorial jurisdictions currently align with the federal maternity and paternal benefits, the new changes will require adoption under each’s respective employment standards legislation, he said during a webinar hosted by the Vanier Institute of the Family in November.
“It can take some time. There is one province that so far has announced that it will be making changes, and that’s Ontario, where they introduced changes to their employment standards legislation to reflect the changes to this new parental benefits option.”
Three principles are guiding the changes to EI benefits, said Brown — flexibility, accessibility and inclusion.
“We’re providing more choice around the timing when the benefits can be taken to help families balance work and family responsibilities,” he said. “Parents will have more flexibility in how to take the parental benefit weeks, with more weeks available to share.”
“There will also be more flexibility in terms of who can receive EI benefits while providing care to a family member.”
In terms of accessibility, the suite of EI benefits is being expanded to cover a greater range of caregiving situations, said Brown. The benefits will also be easier to access as the list of who is eligible to sign medical certificates is expanding to include nurses.
“With this change, we expect to provide improved access, particularly for Canadians in rural and remote areas,” he said.
As for inclusion, the government is expanding the list of eligible family members able to provide care to their loved ones under compassionate care and family care benefits.
“By providing choice in parental benefits duration, we’re also being more inclusive to address the diverse needs of parents,” said Brown.
Canadian families are becoming more diverse than ever before as the concept of “family” continues to become self-defined, said webinar facilitator Nora Spinks, CEO of the Vanier Institute of the Family in Ottawa.
“Families come in all shapes and sizes. Families are dynamic and are continually adapting,” she said. “These days motherhood is more likely to include not only caring for children but also participation in family finances, generating income, employment in the paid labour force... Millennial dads are redefining parenting. They’re more actively involved than ever before.”
At present, a simple concept of “caring” holds families together, said Spinks.
“Caregiving is a big part of families, whether it’s caring for a newborn or caring for our seniors and elders and everybody in-between.”
Maternity, paternal benefits
Under the current EI system, working mothers receive federal support in the form of 15 weeks of maternity leave as a result of pregnancy or childbirth recovery.
Following policy changes, however, expectant mothers will be able to file for benefits four weeks earlier than the previous eight-week limit before their due date.
“It is providing some additional flexibility to a birth mother, the trade-off being that if you receive your maternity benefits sooner, they’re not available (as long) following the birth,” said Brown.
The qualifying standard for EI benefits remains as is, he said. “Workers still require 600 hours of work in the previous year to be eligible, and benefits are generally paid at 55 per cent of the average weekly earnings, up to a cap.”
Meanwhile, changes to parental benefits will allow new parents to choose between a 12- or 18-month leave, said Brown.
Parental benefits complement maternity benefits, allowing parents time to care for their new child or newly adopted child. The benefit is available to opposite-gender or same-sex gender parents, and may be shared, he said.
The current standard of 35 weeks’ leave remains, at a rate of 55 per cent of average weekly earnings, alongside a new option of 61 weeks at a lower compensatory rate of 33 per cent of average weekly earnings.
“The difference from 35 to 61 seems like awkward numbers but the difference is actually 26 weeks, which is half a year or six months,” said Brown. “This now provides flexibility. We expect that there are many families who will continue to take the 12-month option for standard benefits at a higher benefit rate.”
No changes to job tenure or notification provisions will be implemented. “The employer is obliged to provide a job, not the job, when somebody goes off on a maternity or paternal leave,” said Spinks.
Furthermore, it is important to note that the reduced compensatory rate applies strictly to parental benefits, and does not have an impact on maternity benefits, said Brown. “It is also important to keep in mind that parental benefits can be paid at the same time or at different times.”
That’s where community services comes into play, said Spinks.
“If there is no available infant child care, then you’ll want to take them after one another. But if there is availability... then you may want to overlap your parental benefits and be off as a family.”
Families will need to choose a preferred method upon application and will be unable to switch after receiving an initial payment, said Brown.
“Once they have received even a dollar of their parental benefits, they’re not able to switch,” he said. “They become locked in at that point. The other thing is that parents need to be on the same option.”
Those on paternal leave when the new rules are implemented will continue to receive standard benefits, said Brown. However, those on maternity leave can still choose the extended benefits option, if eligible.
Phasing back to work is possible in combination with EI benefits, as is the sharing of benefits between parents, he said.
“With 61 weeks of parental benefits, this does offer new opportunities in terms of sharing,” said Brown, offering a 12-month, six-month split as an example.
There is also only one set of standards, he said. It does not double if a mother gives birth to twins.
The current parental leave standard is a 17-week maternity leave — 15 weeks paid alongside a two-week waiting period — followed by a parental leave option, according to Rutha Astravas, director of special benefits, EI policy, at ESDC.
When combined, it adds up to 52 weeks, which could now extend to 78 if maternity leave is combined with the extended parental leave option, she said.
Employers will need to reconsider their top-up programs — currently offered by one in five Canadian organizations, said Spinks.
The reduction in the waiting period from two weeks to one means some employees will lose a week of top-up pay, she said.
Many employers are now topping up for the first six weeks, full maternity period, or the entire leave, said Spinks.
Caregiver benefits, leaves
A new EI caregiver benefit will provide eligible caregivers with up to 15 weeks of EI while they are away from work to support a critically ill or injured adult family member, said Astravas.
This new benefit is the most significant change to EI benefits, she said.
“We’ve really closed the gap for EI benefits coverage in terms of providing that support for critically ill adults.”
Meanwhile, the Family Caregiver Benefit for Children — previously known as the Parents of Critically Ill Children Benefit — has also been updated, now available to any eligible family member, rather than only parents.
Regardless if the patient in question resides internationally, Canadian citizens are able to administer care while abroad if they are eligible for the benefit and can gain access to a medical certificate, said Astravas.
“The EI program, we recognize, is really complex,” she said. “It’s important to note that you can’t receive both the Family Caregiver Benefit and Compassionate Care Benefit at the same time for the same person. They have different medical standards.”
The maximum amount of time a citizen can receive concurrent EI benefits is 104 weeks (two years), but does depend on individual circumstances, said Astravas.
© Copyright Canadian HR Reporter, Thomson Reuters Canada Limited. All rights reserved.