Maternity top-ups help retention: Study

But few mothers receive benefit and 19-week average remains unchanged

Cascades, a packaging and paper manufacturer in Kingsey Falls, Que., was founded in 1964 by a father and his three sons. Because of that, the company has always had a strong sense of family, said Marie-Pierre Michaud, a company spokesperson.

“Family is really important. Everybody counts on each other,” she said. “We really accommodate work and family responsibilities.”

That’s why, since 1989, the company has offered maternity leave top-up benefits for employees.

In Quebec, where the Quebec Parental Insurance Plan (QPIP) covers maternity leave at 70 per cent of salary for 18 weeks (or 75 per cent for 15 weeks), Cascades tops up the government benefit to 95 per cent of salary for 18 weeks.

In Ontario and British Columbia, where employment insurance covers maternity leave at 55 per cent of salary for 15 weeks, Cascades tops up the government benefit to 95 per cent for 15 weeks.

“When you work in a company and you really feel the company cares about you, you’re more inclined to work and put effort into your work and be proud,” said Michaud. “It’s also a good way to retain our employees.”

In fact, 96 per cent of women in Canada who took maternity leave in 2008 and whose employers offered paid benefits and top-up payments returned to their employer, compared to 77 per cent of mothers with only paid benefits and 46 per cent of mothers without either, found a Statistics Canada study.

“Although employers pay for this benefit, there is some benefit for them as well. The vast majority of women with top-ups return to their previous employer soon after the public benefit is over, so employers are retaining experienced employees,” said Katherine Marshall, a senior analyst at Statistics Canada and author of Employer Top-Ups and Paid Maternity and Parental Leave. “It takes the guesswork out of knowing if someone is going to be back or not.”

Unfortunately, only 20 per cent of the 262,000 women in 2008 who went on maternity leave, and received EI/QPIP benefits, received any kind of employer top-up payments, a proportion that has remained unchanged for the past decade, found the study.

“It’s a very well-known, discretionary benefit but it’s certainly not that common,” said Marshall.

On average, the top-ups last 19 weeks, which has also been the average for the past 10 years even though parental leave benefits under EI (and now QPIP) increased from 10 weeks to 35 weeks in 2001. The average weekly top-up was $300.

The average duration of the top-ups indicate most employers are only topping up the maternity leave portion (15 to 18 weeks in Quebec and 15 weeks in the rest of Canada) and not the parental leave (25 to 32 weeks in Quebec and 35 weeks in the rest of Canada), said Marshall.

In fact, only 20 per cent of mothers who received employer top-ups said they received the benefit for six months or more, even though most new mothers who are eligible for EI/QPIP benefits are on leave for nearly one year, she said.

Public sector companies are more likely to provide top-ups, and for a longer period of time, with 48 per cent of mothers in the sector receiving a top-up for an average of 22 weeks in 2008. Just eight per cent of mothers in the private sector received a top-up, for an average of only 12 weeks.

Top-ups popular with top employers

However, it’s a different story among employers that apply for, and end up on, Canada’s Top 100 Employers list.

The majority of these organizations offer some form of top-ups, said Richard Yerema, managing editor of Canada’s Top 100 Employers. Only five per cent of employers on the 2010 list don’t offer any top-ups and more than 25 employers on the list offer more than 26 weeks of benefits, he said.

“When we started this project more than 10 years ago, it was relatively rare,” said Yerema. Now his team is seeing a significant increase in the number of applicants that offer the benefit. And it’s not just among the large, public sector employers, either. Small, private companies are also offering top-ups, he said.

“Employers are noting that their competition is offering (top-ups) and recognizing that and finding a way to do what’s possible,” he said. “When you’re trying to build loyalty and have your people stay for the long term, these are the kinds of benefits that are attractive.”

Benefit also serves as attraction tool

Along with retention, these benefits help with attraction, said Nora Spinks, president of Work-Life Harmony Enterprises, a Toronto-based research and consulting firm.

“If you’re a young employee, recent grad, and you have the choice to get 55 per cent of earnings when you start family formation or 90 per cent, which employer are you going to choose?” said Spinks. “The younger generations are expecting it, demanding it, negotiating it.”

If a mother earns more than $42,300 a year, she will only receive 55 per cent of $42,300 from EI while on leave, so she could receive much less than 55 per cent of her usual earnings, said Spinks.

To provide true equity in the workplace, Spinks would like to see employers provide salary replacement during the two-week EI waiting period and ensure everyone — mothers and fathers who take leave — receives 55 per cent of their total salary.

It’s also unfair mothers and fathers have to share the 35 weeks of parental benefits, especially since more fathers are choosing to stay home during the first six weeks after a baby’s birth, she said.

“Historically, that postpartum care was provided by grandma, but grandma is now in the paid labour force,” said Spinks.

With dads staying home in the beginning, many moms might have to return to work earlier than they would like, she said.

Options include instituting paternity leave (which already exists in Quebec) or grandparent leave, to allow grandparents to take an EI-supported leave, said Spinks.

Making it easier for parents to stay home with their newborns is beneficial for society as a whole, she said.

“We know that those early years are critically important in terms of brain development, in terms of creativity and innovation. It’s an indirect investment in both the marketplace of the future and the labour force of the future,” said Spinks.

Latest stories