Know the scoop on parental leave benefits

Over the past year, federal announcements, including budget releases, have heralded increases in Employment Insurance (EI) parental leave benefits from 10 weeks to 35 weeks, effective Jan. 1, 2001. This has given many employees the impression that the increase extends across the country, with a potential for up to one year combined maternity and parental leave. The ensuing misunderstandings leave the human resources department the task of eliminating the complications and confusion that continue to surface.

HR practitioners first need to know that there are two different sets of legislation that address maternity and parental leaves. Provincial employment or labour standards dictate the unpaid time an employer must grant a qualifying employee, while federal legislation governs the payment of EI benefits for the absence.

Most employees are not aware of this distinction.

Under current EI legislation, a qualifying woman on leave receives 15 paid weeks of maternity benefits (plus a two-week waiting period for a total of 17 weeks), followed by an additional 10 paid weeks of parental leave benefits. The latter legislation is what has been amended by the federal government to 35 weeks.

The new federal legislation also makes the following amendments:
•Entrance requirements are lowered by reducing the number of insurable work hours from 700 to 600.
•Benefits will be referred to as “special benefits,” encompassing sickness, maternity and parental benefits.
•Current EI benefit provisions would continue to apply to parents who adopted a child or whose child was born before Dec. 31, 2000, or to a claimant who became ill before that date.
•These special benefits would not be available to EI claimants who have accumulated violations.
•Parents will be allowed to work part-time while receiving parental benefits (with income up to 25 per cent of their weekly benefit or $50, whichever is greater).
•There will be more flexibility with respect to how parents can divide their leave.
•Only one waiting period is required when parents share parental benefits.
•Finally, provisions in Bill C-23, Modernization of Benefits and Obligations Act, that change the definition of “common-law” under the Employment Insurance Act, would be implemented.

To date, British Columbia is the only province to introduce legislation that amends parental leave to coincide with the federal EI changes. B.C. has set Jan. 1, 2001 as the effective date for the extension of parental leave from the current 12 to 35 weeks.

In the Alberta legislature, a private member’s bill has been introduced to enact similar changes, but its success is in doubt as private member’s bills do not reflect government policy and are rarely enacted.

Ontario’s recent consultation paper on suggested changes to its Employment Standards Act does not include proposals for maternity or parental leave.

Many employees have assumed that they are going to qualify to be away from work for an entire year. To date, the only employees who are assured that they are eligible for the full leave are those who work for the federal government, for federally regulated employers or employees working in Quebec.

Unless your organization initiates or changes its existing parental leave policy to allow for the additional time, you will need to explain why this is not the case.

HR can proactively offer a proper explanation of each area of legislation. To assist you in this, Human Resources Development Canada has posted information on its Web site at www.hrdc-drhc.gc.ca/ei/common/parental_benefits.shtml. You can use this information or circulate your own communications to employees.

Many of the provincial labour Web sites also have easy-to-understand, factual information on their provisions for maternity and parental leaves.
To avoid unnecessary surprises for employees, you need to fully explain the differences between the federal EI legislation and the employment or labour standards law(s) that prevail in all provinces — and be sure to refer to your own company policy, as well.

Kimberley Fiume is director, client services for LeadingEdge Payroll Group Inc. She can be reached at 1-877-702-6447.

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