Im­proved parental leave needed

Journal Pioneer - - EDITORIAL -

The fed­eral gov­ern­ment has taken a baby step to­ward make Canada’s parental leave pro­gram more flex­i­ble. This is as good as far as it goes. But, sadly, it doesn’t go very far. On Thurs­day it an­nounced it is chang­ing the rules on parental leave to al­low par­ents to re­ceive up to 18 months of Em­ploy­ment In­sur­ance ben­e­fits af­ter the birth of a child.

But the devil, as al­ways, is in the de­tails. It turns out the changes won’t help many par­ents and they un­der­score the gov­ern­ment’s over­all lack of think­ing about what it will take to truly help them out.

First, the gov­ern­ment isn’t ex­tend­ing ex­ist­ing EI ben­e­fits over 18 months. In­stead, as first laid out in last spring’s bud­get, it will sim­ply give a par­ent the op­tion of re­ceiv­ing what they would have been en­ti­tled to dur­ing 12 months and spread­ing it out over 18. That means most fam­i­lies won’t be able to af­ford it, says Kate McIn­turff, a se­nior re­searcher with the Cana­dian Cen­tre for Pol­icy Al­ter­na­tives, which stud­ies this is­sue. It’s dif­fi­cult enough to sus­tain a house­hold for 12 months un­der the cur­rent rules; do­ing with­out a full in­come for even longer will be a strug­gle for many. In­deed, right now, out­side of Que­bec where parental leave pack­ages are much richer, a par­ent tak­ing leave re­ceives only 55 per cent of their salary, up to a max­i­mum of $543 a week. Taken over 18 months, it will be 33 per cent to a max­i­mum of just $326 per week.

Sec­ond, it’s still ex­traor­di­nar­ily dif­fi­cult for par­ents who are work­ing part-time or in other pre­car­i­ous work to ac­cess the EI parental leave pro­gram. Un­der cur­rent rules, which are not chang­ing, in­di­vid­u­als are re­quired to work 600 in­sur­able hours of work in the 52 weeks pre­ced­ing their claim. The fed­eral gov­ern­ment should take a les­son, again, from Que­bec where it’s much easier to ac­cess parental leave ben­e­fits.

There’s a third com­pli­ca­tion that will make the 18-month op­tion im­pos­si­ble for most par­ents. As part of its pol­icy change, Ot­tawa amended the Canada Labour Code for fed­er­ally reg­u­lated work­places, in­clud­ing banks, trans­port com­pa­nies, tele­coms and the pub­lic ser­vice to en­sure that em­ploy­ees main­tain job pro­tec­tion dur­ing that pe­riod.

But that cov­ers only eight per cent of work­ers. The 92 per cent who aren’t fed­er­ally reg­u­lated will have to wait un­til the prov­ince or ter­ri­tory they live in de­cides to change its labour laws to give sim­i­lar pro­tec­tion. Prov­inces need to act on this. But they will face re­sis­tance. One sur­vey found that al­most 70 per cent of small busi­nesses op­pose an 18-month leave op­tion. Nor is an ex­tended parental leave nec­es­sar­ily even a good thing for many women. Re­search shows women tend to drop out of the work­force if they take parental leave be­yond 12 months, says McIn­turff. Even if an em­ployer is re­quired to take them back af­ter 18 months, they may find they get less sat­is­fac­tory as­sign­ments or feel marginal­ized.

In fact, the gov­ern­ment is avoid­ing the real is­sue: Cre­at­ing a uni­ver­sal, ac­ces­si­ble, af­ford­able child­care pro­gram across the coun­try that would help women get back into the work­force.

Canada lags badly be­hind many coun­tries, par­tic­u­larly in Europe, in the gen­eros­ity and ac­ces­si­bil­ity of its parental leave pro­grams. The gov­ern­ment should be mov­ing more quickly to­ward sig­nif­i­cant changes, rather than be­ing sat­is­fied with a mere tweak to the ex­ist­ing sys­tem.

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