Are new parental leave laws flexible enough for today’s working parents?

As provinces move to bring job-protection legislation for parental leave in line with Ottawa’s Employment Insurance initiative, questions are cropping up.

The legislation allows new mothers to leave the workforce for up to one year and be assured of a job when they come back.

Is the new legislation realistic for today’s workforce? Not for senior managers, says Steve DeForest, manager of compensation and employee practices for Siemens Canada Limited.

“It’s great legislative protection for people to be able to take the leave but I don’t think it aligns to the pace of today’s workforce — how fast people have to go to keep up and to keep their skills up,” says DeForest, who also teaches a benefits administration course at the University of Guelph. “I think they’ve presented an incredible challenge for senior professional women: How do you take advantage of a legislated right of leave for a year and not have it affect what your job is when you come back?”

Last month, Newfoundland and Ontario extended job-protection legislation for parents of new or newly adopted children.

The legislation brings the two provinces in line with recently amended federal legislation. Nova Scotia, British Columbia and Quebec previously extended parental leave, and employees subject to the Canada Labour Code are also protected.

At lower levels the legislation may come as a welcome relief. But at senior levels, it is probably unrealistic to expect that a mother could leave the workforce for a year and come back to the same job she left.

And, says DeForest, it’s unrealistic to expect a company to hold the job that long, only to hand it over at the end of a year to an employee whose skills are now a year out of date.

“It’s almost like we hit a point where the legislation went one place and work practice went another,” he says.

“It would be awfully difficult for a piece of legislation to protect your job. I can see guarantees of a job, but I’m not sure how you can legislate organizations to slow down.”

While the parent is bonding with the new child, the workforce is continuing on at its usual formidable pace. Workers are being trained. New work processes are being implemented. Technology is changing and being deployed. All this, while the at-home worker’s professional skills remain virtually stagnant.

“How do you make it workable for senior level professionals, managers, executives, who are having kids... they’re trying to balance the ability to take leave for a year against being out of a job stream or a career path for a year.”

One way to make it more workable, says DeForest, is to consider amending the Employment Insurance Act to allow for part-time work during parental leave.

If parents could work half-days during their leave and still collect EI benefits during the half days they’re not working, people could spend quality time with the new family addition without being out of the loop at work.

Currently, EI benefits are affected when parents earn anything beyond a certain level.

“(The government) would end up paying the same amount of money on EI but it would allow people to have a flexible work arrangement,” says DeForest.

Details of parental leave

Under the federal Employment Insurance Act, parents of children born on or after Dec. 31, 2000, are entitled to 35 weeks of parental benefits and mothers are entitled to 15 weeks of maternity benefits. There is a two-week waiting period for EI benefits, not included in these numbers. Parental leave legislation also applies to adoptive parents.

Parental leave comprises two elements:

1) Employment Insurance benefits. This is the money — approximately 55 per cent of average weekly insurable earnings –- that is paid by the federal government during the 52 weeks of leave (applicable to parents whose children are born after Dec. 31 of this year). This includes a two-week “waiting period” during which no money is given. These benefits are granted by the federal government. In all provinces, parents are eligible to receive these benefits as long as they meet the criteria spelled out in the legislation.

2) Job protection. Each province decides, individually, how long parents can stay at home and still be assured of a job when they return to work. Federal government employees and people working in federally regulated businesses are guaranteed 52 weeks of job protection. Newfoundland, British Columbia, Nova Scotia, Quebec and now Ontario are the only provinces that have leave protection that matches federal benefits.

Ontario labour legislation

The Ontario legislation is expected to be passed into law by the end of this month. It will increase job-protected leave to 52 weeks in order to align with the federal benefits.

The changes come as part of a host of changes to Ontario’s Employment Standards Act. (For more information, visit www.gov.on.ca/LAB/main.htm.)

Who gets what?

Here’s a summary of parental leave benefits across Canada.

Federal:

The Canada Labour Code provides 52 weeks of job protection to federal government employees as well as employees in federally regulated industries such as banking. However, it is up to the provinces to extend leave protection to other workers.

Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, British Columbia, Quebec and Ontario:

These provinces have amended or are in the process of amending their codes to align with the federal code providing 52 weeks of job protection.

All other:

No other provinces have amended their paternity leave allowances.

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