Big gaps in parental leave

Winnipeg Free Press - SundayXtra - - CANADA / WORLD -

Lib­eral plan for a re­vamped parental leave pro­gram and whether the party’s prom­ise to ex­tend leave to 18 months will just ex­ac­er­bate the sit­u­a­tion.

Dur­ing the elec­tion, the Lib­er­als promised to al­low new par­ents to take up to 18 months of leave af­ter a child is born and give par­ents the op­tion of spread­ing 12 months of ben­e­fits into chunks over the ex­tended time pe­riod.

Labour Min­is­ter MaryAnn Mi­hy­chuk has also said she is in­ter­ested in cre­at­ing ded­i­cated leave for new fa­thers, sim­i­lar to what is in place in Que­bec, and will put the idea to Cana­di­ans in yet-to-be-launched con­sul­ta­tions.

The lead au­thor on the study said the gov­ern­ment has al­ready been warned its plan could leave out al­most half the chil­dren in the coun­try un­less it eases el­i­gi­bil­ity rules so more moth­ers, es­pe­cially low-in­come earn­ers, can qual­ify.

“You’re go­ing in a di­rec­tion of mak­ing your­self look good by do­ing some­thing for mid­dle-class par­ents, but you’re not ad­dress­ing what is the ac­tual prob­lem with parental leave,” said Lind­sey McKay, a post­doc­toral fel­low and ad­junct pro­fes­sor at Brock Uni­ver­sity’s school of so­ci­ol­ogy.

For now, the fed­eral parental leave pro­gram pays out ben­e­fits for up to 15 weeks for new moth­ers and al­lows moth­ers and fa­thers to split an ad­di­tional 35 weeks.

The fed­eral pro­gram re­quires par­ents to have worked at least 600 hours in the year be­fore they go on leave, un­like in Que­bec where the thresh­old is $2,000 of earn­ings. That dif­fer­ence has meant Que­bec over time has seen an in­crease in the num­ber of low-in­come women qual­i­fy­ing for the ben­e­fit — boost­ing na­tional num­bers to give a rosier pic­ture of parental leave in Canada.

The 600-hour re­quire­ment in the rest of Canada has had the op­po­site ef­fect as fewer women over time have qual­i­fied for leave. The per­cent­age of women not qual­i­fy­ing has gone up since the mid-1990s when the hours re­quired stood at 300. Even though in some cases they have con­trib­uted to em­ploy­ment in­sur­ance for years, they may not have enough hours to qual­ify be­cause they work part time or are stu­dents.

Chang­ing those re­quire­ments to be in line with Que­bec’s stan­dard would al­low more moth­ers to stay at home dur­ing the first year of their child’s life, McKay said.

“The chil­dren are kind of pe­nal­ized for the em­ploy­ment sit­u­a­tion of the par­ent at the time of their birth,” said McKay, who her­self didn’t qual­ify for the ben­e­fit four years ago af­ter giv­ing birth to twins be­cause she was a stu­dent.

“What it means is that we have a vast ma­jor­ity of peo­ple con­tribut­ing to the pro­gram, but the peo­ple who are ben­e­fit­ing are those who are in higher-in­come house­holds.”

FOTOLIA

A study find­ing short­com­ings in parental leave in Canada raises ques­tions about Ot­tawa’s abil­ity to en­hance the pro­gram.

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