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A longer, leaner parental leave

Proposed leave stirs up thoughts on the rights of new parents and their families
Parental leave
REUTERS/Juan Carlos Ulat

By Jeffrey R. Smith

The recent budget announced by the federal government has prompted much discussion about many things — as do most federal budgets — and one of the items that has spurred much debate is the government’s proposal to extend parental leave. By announcing the changes, the Liberal government is fulfilling a promise it made in the last election campaign, but it may be questionable if it really means an improvement in the rights of employees with regards to parental obligations.

As it is, employees are generally granted about one year of leave for the birth of a baby — 15 to 18 weeks’ maternity leave for mothers around the actual birth (with most provinces provided 17 weeks, followed by 35 to 37 weeks of parental leave that can be split among both parents. Nova Scotia and Quebec are the exceptions for parental leave, with both allowing up to 52 weeks of parental leave alone on top of maternity leave, while Quebec also offers five weeks of paternity leave for fathers. Five provinces offer 37 weeks of leave for adoption, while another five — yes, including the generous Quebec — offer 52.

While these leaves are to ensure jobs are still there at the end of the indicated periods of time, they are not required to be paid. As such, employees can apply for employment insurance (EI) benefits to bring in some income during the leave. Parents are eligible to receive 55 per cent of their income to a maximum of $485 per week for the 12-month period of maternity leave and parental leave. Again, Quebec has a more generous plan, as under that province’s parental insurance plan, employees can receive 70 per cent of their pay for 25 weeks, followed by 25 weeks at 55 per cent -- or choose 40 weeks at 75 per cent with no benefits after that. 

The new proposed parental leave will allow parents to extend the period during which their job is protected for as long as another six months, for a total leave period of 18 months. However, the amount of EI benefits they receive will remain the same, so if the length of time of the leave is extended, the amount of income the parent on leave receives will be stretched out and equal 33 per cent of their income while they’re off work.

Many employers top up the EI payments employees on maternity and parental leave receive to a certain percentage of their pay, sometimes to the point where the employees will receive full pay. Now, they might have to re-evaluate their policies and whether it is cost-effective to offer such benefits for a longer period if employees choose a longer period. On the other hand, a reduction of benefits could be received negatively by employees and potentially cause problems with morale and productivity.

In terms of legal obligations and human rights, employers are often required to accommodate certain parental obligations, as family status is a protected ground under human rights legislation. Job-protected leave for new parents is one of the ways legislation recognizes that human right, and there have been many common law court decisions that have found other obligations related to the parent-child relationship should be accommodated by employers whenever possible.

But under the new, longer, proposed parental leave, it’s likely only certain employees will be able to take advantage of it. Low-income parents — who are also less likely to have jobs that top up parental leave benefits — can struggle financially with reduced income during parental leave and may be forced to return to work sooner than one year as it is. These parents are unlikely to take advantage of an 18-month parental leave, even if it’s better for the development of the child and the parent-child relationship — unless the savings in child-care costs over the extra months are worth it.

Since these developments are part of an increasing recognition of the importance of parents in the early developmental stages of a child’s life, should family status rights be further protected? As it is, parental leave can only be divided between parents — they don’t each get the time off. Should this change? Are employees who don’t receive top-ups during their maternity and parental leaves discriminated against because they are starting families and are thus placed at a financial disadvantage compared to workers without children?

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Jeffrey R. Smith

Jeffrey R. Smith is the editor of Canadian Employment Law Today, a publication that looks at workplace law from a business perspective.
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  • Leaves vs. benefits
    Friday, September 22, 2017 11:48:00 AM by Jeffrey R. Smith
    Your numbers refer to entitlement to paid parental benefits, but the numbers given for the time allowed for parental leave are correct. After maternity leave is up, parents in Quebec can take up to 52 weeks of leave, while receiving benefits payments for up to 32 of those weeks, depending on the plan.