Leave may challenge employers in backfilling for shorter stints: Experts
On March 17, a new five-week parental sharing benefit aimed at non-birth parents officially took effect in Canada.
The changes mean parents will now receive an additional five weeks away from work if they opt for the traditional year-long leave, or eight weeks if they choose the 18-month option introduced in 2018.
The leave is available to working parents who are eligible for employment insurance (EI) benefits. Applicants are required to work 600 hours in the previous year to earn eligibility. To take advantage of the additional time, the couple will need to split the leave to care for their child.
The use-it-or-lose-it policy came into effect three months earlier than expected, just before the 2019 federal budget was announced.
It is available to two-parent families, including adoptive and same-sex couples. (The 2018 federal budget had announced the change to parental leave directed at non-birth parents.) Parents whose children are born or adopted after March 17 are eligible for the additional leave.
The parental sharing benefit is separate from the maternity benefit. Maternity benefits of 15 weeks remain available solely to the pregnant person or birth parent who is away from work.
The change was made to help remove barriers that working women have traditionally faced as the primary parent responsible for raising children — allowing them to return to work sooner, if they so choose, according to the government.
It’s an effort to promote greater gender equality in the home and workplace, said Josh Bueckert, spokesperson for Employment and Social Development Canada.
“This use-it-or-lose-it approach of the EI Parental Sharing Benefit is designed to create an incentive for all parents to take some leave when welcoming a new child, and to share more equally in the joy and responsibility of raising their children,” he said.
“More equitable parental leave may lead to more equitable hiring practices over time, reducing discrimination against women by employers and shifting cultural attitudes against men taking parental leave.”
In 2016 and 2017, 85 per cent of Canadian parental benefits claims were made by women.
However, employers may face challenges because of the change, as short-term employee absences are tougher to fill, said Andrew Shaw, partner at Baker McKenzie in Toronto.
“It does create a bit of difficulty in terms of backfilling employees,” he said. “(Five weeks) is too short to actually backfill, but it’s too long to have somebody else covering the work, and you might have issues of burnout with other employees.”
How it works
The new benefit increases the duration of EI parental leave by up to five weeks in cases where the second parent agrees to take a minimum of five weeks using the standard year-long option at 55 per cent of earnings.
For parents opting for the 18-month package at 33 per cent of earnings, the second parent would be able to take up to eight weeks of additional leave.
Under the standard option, the maximum period any parent can take of parental leave is 35 weeks. To access the additional five weeks of benefits, any combination of sharing is allowed, such as five weeks for one and 35 for the other, or 20 weeks for one and 20 for the other.
The second parent can take less than the standard five weeks if preferred, said Bueckert.
“The only condition is that no parent can get more than 35 weeks of standard or 61 weeks of extended parental benefits, meaning that the extra weeks are not transferable to the other parent and would be lost if they are not used,” he said.
Parents can split up to 69 weeks through the extended option, though one parent cannot claim more than 61 weeks, said Bueckert. “Parents may claim parental benefits at the same time or one after another.”
Quebec already has a second-parent leave in place, which provides up to five weeks paid for new fathers. In 2016, 80 per cent of Quebec fathers expressed a desire to claim this benefit, as opposed to 12 per cent of fathers in the rest of the country, according to Statistics Canada.
While the new sharing leave is available to all eligible employees, changes to the job-protected leave provisions under the Canada Labour Code do not apply to provincially and territorially regulated employers and employees, said Bueckert.
“Provincial and territorial governments would need to make corresponding changes to their labour standards legislation in order to provide similar job-protected leave to employees in their jurisdictions.”
The change ushers in a whole new mentality around the way paternity leave is used, said Theresa Tran, senior benefits consultant at Eckler in Toronto.
“Traditionally, it’s been more around how did the workplace accommodate a woman taking maternity leave. And, oftentimes, she takes the parental leave portion of it as well, and we don’t necessarily focus on the dads,” she said.
“Employers will now see more of that thinking or consideration from their employees, but it’s also going to depend really on their workforce… Oftentimes, it comes down to the income levels of those parents, and often the decision is really around ‘Can we financially do this?’”
The government is projecting that as many as 97,000 parents will claim the parental sharing benefit each year, but also noted that more than 32,000 parents claimed extended parental benefits since it became available in December 2017 — well over the anticipated claim total of 20,000.
While short-term difficulties may exist in terms of fulfilling employees’ duties while they are on leave, employers may enjoy long-term benefits in terms of employee relations, according to Shaw.
“If the start of a child’s life is dealt with better by both parents, and those tasks are shared, there can be a long-term benefit to companies,” he said.
“It’s tough to figure out exactly what the implications will be for employers. It’s something that employers need to look at and take seriously when they’re planning how they schedule work, and how many employees they’re going to have.”
While shorter leaves may be harder to fill, they could also be viewed as “an opportunity to foster a culture of support for caregiving in which all those in a workplace assist one another with important transitions in their personal lives,” said Kate Bezanson, associate professor and chair of the sociology department at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont.
“Supporting employees to care… may have the additional benefit of securing long-term employee loyalty and productive work culture,” she said.
Advice for HR
The change to parental leave is an opportunity for employers to support gender equality, said Bezanson.
“Shared care, over time, may also contribute to changes in decision-making around full- and part-time work, and potentially increase the promotion of women to more senior positions.”
Working parents may increasingly choose to share responsibilities associated with children’s sick days or appointments, which could decrease employee absences and reduce role strain, she said.
HR professionals would be wise to consider cross-training employees so they can backfill when necessary, said Shaw.
Workplace policy should be reviewed to ensure compliance with new entitlements, while top-up provisions should also be reflected upon, he said.
If top-up pay is currently provided to employees on leave, it will need to be provided to both the birth parent and non-birth parent — if shared leave is chosen, said Shaw.
“What ends up happening is a lot of employers decide not to provide top-up at all, which is a bit of a penalty.”
However, employers will want to ensure there are no reprisals against employees who choose shared leave — such as a refusal to promote someone, or a change in assignment due to a perceived lack of company commitment, he said.
“Certain private-sector workplaces where the culture is such that non-birth parents never take leaves and all of a sudden people are going to say, ‘Well, I’m going to be off five weeks’ — I could totally see there being reprisal claims there.”
Employers can attempt to negotiate but ultimately are required to abide by the law, said Shaw.