A proposed change to parental leave in Canada could cause nightmares for human resources practitioners, warn experts.
The Liberal government is mulling a decision to extend parental leave from 12 to 18 months, allowing parents to work periodically during that time frame, if preferred. Employment insurance (EI) benefits would not rise, but would be spread over a longer time period.
As it stands, the federal government provides temporary financial assistance to employees and insured self-employed persons who are pregnant or caring for a newborn baby, as well as job protection status for the duration of the leave.
But legislative changes are expected, and the federal budget has $2.7 billion allocated to the program, which would also see the traditional two-week waiting period for benefits reduced to one as of the new year.
“Canadian families are diverse and each family must respond to its own circumstances, including the financial and employment situation of the family members, their family composition and personal circumstances, as well as the availability of child care,” said Jean-Yves Duclos, minister of families, children and social development.
“Caring for a child or seriously ill family member puts tremendous pressure on many Canadians to balance their family and work responsibilities. EI parental and caregiving benefits and leaves should be flexible and inclusive to meet the needs of today’s families.”
The government’s proposal is impractical from an organizational perspective, with very little consideration given to the impact on employers, said Dan Kelly, president of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB) in Toronto.
“If an employee does go out for 18 months altogether, that puts real pressure on a small business to find a replacement during that period of time,” he said. “If you’ve got a key employee that’s gone, it really puts a burden on a business that may have five employees.”
“It is tough enough to find somebody to take a year-term position, so some businesses end up just trying to make do during that period of time, if they possibly can. Especially in specialized areas, there aren’t a lot of people just sitting on the sidelines of the job market, waiting for term positions. So you would end up having to do less business during that period of time.”
Another major worry from an employer perspective is the notion that an employee could move in and out of the workplace at her discretion during a specific parental leave, said Kelly.
“You can imagine the whipsaw effect that that would have on an employer, and if you do have someone that’s trying to fill in — a contract worker, perhaps — you can’t do that to people… It could be a mess.”
“It would be nightmarish for an HR person to try to implement these kinds of policies.”
It’s stressful enough for an HR professional to navigate through individual paternal leaves, not knowing if an employee will return to his position, he said.
“There’s always a bit of a deep breath taken towards the end of somebody’s parental leave,” said Kelly.
“This would create many more moments of deep breath. When an employee is coming in and out of the workforce, it becomes that much harder to plan.”
“At the very least, there needs to be some provisions with notice periods, so that the employee can’t just come in and out of the workforce on a daily or weekly basis. The employer is owed the respect to have a plan put in place by the employee who’s heading out on leave.”
If the government does implement the parental leave changes as proposed, EI premiums will rise — eventually, said Kelly.
“Right now, the proposal is to increase the length of time of the leave without increasing the benefits,” he said.
“My belief is the next step will be pressure to increase the benefits. That’s the way that these things generally go. When that happens, the cost pressures on the EI system, as a whole, just rise.”
That’s worrisome, as employers currently pay 60 per cent of the premiums as opposed to 40 per cent by employees, said Kelly.
Organizations should also prepare for changes in the way they top up parental leaves, said Nora Spinks, CEO of the Vanier Institute of the Family in Ottawa.
More than one-quarter of Canadian companies (26 per cent) top up amounts paid by the government during maternity leaves, according to a 2016 Conference Board of Canada report that found employees tend to return to work in higher proportions when a top-up is offered.
Companies simply aren’t ready for some of the changes slated for EI, such as the reduction in wait times from two weeks to one, or the right to request flex time, said Spinks.
“That’s going to be a huge issue,” she said. “The question becomes, from an employer perspective: ‘What are the conditions of your top-up program?’ What we’re hearing from the payroll people is it’s more than a simple fix.”
The possible legislative changes could also see employers pondering the potential of extending the duration of wage top-ups, she said.
Even unions recognize how impractical the proposed change is from the employee side of the equation, said Kelly.
“There are not a lot of employees that can afford to take 18 months off with the same amount of pay — it goes down to 55 per cent when you’re on mat leave. So my concern is somewhat nullified by the fact that I don’t believe that there would be a huge number of Canadians that would be taking up this provision.”
Offering more time away from work without increased monetary benefits may not yield high amounts of participation, said Stephen Moreau, employment lawyer at the Cavalluzzo firm in Toronto.
“There really isn’t any evidence that extending parental leave longer is going to mean anyone’s actually going to take a longer parental leave,” he said. “I think there will be a small uptake, there will be some effect but I think, overall, it will be very small.”
“If you’re an employer, I think employers’ groups might be exaggerating the detrimental impact. On the other hand, if the goal of this change is to make changes and improvements for working people, then a marginal impact means very little benefit whatsoever, which then begs the question: ‘Why is this being proposed in the first place?’”
While flexible parental leave may be a “Band-Aid solution,” it is the best available solution to address a growing issue surrounding daycare shortages and limitations, said Alisa Fulshtinsky, founder of Toronto Mommies, an online Facebook group of more than 12,000 Ontario mothers.
Because of restrictions in daycare programming — most daycares only accept toddlers who are 18 months old and up — many mothers are struggling to mesh work with motherhood, she said.
Mothers who have successive children may be forced to resign from their positions as many organizations are not prepared to accept longer leaves — unpaid or otherwise.
“It’s been a growing problem for many, many years that now just got worse,” said Fulshtinsky. “Millennials are having children, and they’re the most educated generation we’ve had. It’s becoming increasingly hard to combine work and life.”
In April, Fulshtinsky started a petition urging the government to fulfill its campaign promise to extend parental leave. The document has since garnered more than 91,000 signatures.
“I feel like something immediate must be done,” she said. “We can’t switch everyone to an 18-month plan, but families could decide for themselves. It’s both spouses that are in the situation — they could divide the time between them.”
“I hate seeing women fall out of the workplace. I think, in the end, that hurts all of us. Going back (to work) five years after you’ve been out is always a huge challenge, but people do want to have kids. It shouldn’t be an either-or. At the end of the day, what we’re trying to do is leave those very educated and qualified women in the workplace.”
This issue is also about the role fathers play in postpartum care or child nurturing, said Spinks.
“There is absolutely a need to modernize our current system of leaves and benefits to better reflect today’s families with young children and employees with caregiving responsibilities,” she said.
“We need to step back and understand what is being suggested as potential changes. The intent of increasing the duration or the flexibility is to meet the needs of, or align better with, modern family experiences.”
“Employers need to be ready for modern-family realities. What we have before us is an opportunity to shape the next iteration of leaves and benefits related to family and family care.”
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