New dads should take time off too (Editor’s Notes)

Only a handful of fathers take leave – except in Quebec, where something extraordinary is happening

There seems to be an unwritten rule in Canada that mothers, not fathers, take time off work when a new baby arrives.

Yes, both sexes are equally eligible for parental leave. But while that policy looks good on paper, women are far more likely to take extended time off work to care for a newborn.

How much more likely? Nearly nine out of 10 (88.6 per cent) of recent mothers — defined as those with a child up to 12 months old — who were eligible for employment insurance received either maternity or parental benefits in 2011, according to Statistics Canada.

Yet less than one-third of eligible fathers (29.3 per cent) took parental leave in the same time period.

Those numbers represent Canada as a whole. Take Quebec out of the equation and the number of fathers taking leave drops to a handful — 11 per cent took leave in 2011 — which means something extraordinary is happening in la belle province. Last year, 83.9 per cent of fathers eligible for leave took it. That’s not a statistical nuance, that’s a sea change.

Two things explain this. First, new fathers in Quebec have always been more apt to take time off to care for a newborn — so culture can account for some of the difference.

But the second, and the bigger, reason is the Quebec Parental Insurance Plan (QPIP), which the province launched in 2006 after it lobbied Ottawa to hand over control of the parental leave program.

In 2005, 27.8 per cent of eligible new fathers took leave. By 2011, that figure had ballooned to more than eight in 10.

Looking at the details of the program, it’s not surprising so many fathers are jumping on the bandwagon. QPIP offers paternity benefits, which are available only to the father. That’s critical. Not to sound chauvinistic or chivalrous, but a lot of guys I know wouldn’t be keen to take time off if it meant their spouse would be forced to go back to work.

Under the basic plan, Quebec dads can take off up to five weeks of paternity leave at 70 per cent of their average weekly income. Under the special plan, they can take off three weeks at 75 per cent of their average income.

And it’s not just this father-only leave that makes it more appealing — the income hit on new parents in Quebec is less than in the rest of the country. Outside Quebec, new parents receiving maternity and parental leave benefits receive 55 per cent of average earnings, up to a maximum of $45,900 — or $485 per week.

In Quebec, the math is a tad different. Both the percentages (up to 75 per cent, depending on the option chosen) and the maximum earnings ($66,000) are higher — which means a high-wage-earning parent could be on leave and receive up to $950 per week.

This isn’t an inexpensive program. Employers and workers in Quebec have had to dig a little deeper to fund these higher benefits that are used more frequently. But if we take off our pure finance hats and look at this from the bigger societal picture, giving both parents the time to bond with and care for newborns seems like a very healthy thing to do.

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