Parental leave in Canada

22. November 2012 - 11:23

Parental leave is one of the most important policies governments can put in place for modern families.

In Canada, mothers can take up to a year of paid leave after the birth of a child, the same as Serbian mothers, but strikingly different from the 12 weeks of unpaid maternity leave available to mothers in the US.

There are two kinds of leave available to Canadian parents after the birth of a child. Maternity leave, available only to mothers, gives women up to 17 weeks of paid leave, either after the birth of a child or during pregnancy, if the mother is unable to work for some reason. Parental leave is an addition 35 weeks, which can be taken after the birth or adoption of a child. Either parent can take parental leave and parents can divide it up between them in any way they want.

However, one difference between Canada and Serbia is that Canadian mothers do not get their full salary while on parental leave. Canadians parents get up to 55% of their average weekly wages up to a maximum of $485.00 CDN per week, while on leave. (The average weekly wage for married Canadian women is about $875.00 per week.) Low-income parents can get a top-up (increased) payment, which can raise their benefit payment up to the maximum of $485.00.

Employers must give mothers (or fathers) their old job back, or an equivalent job with the same pay and benefits, when parental leave is over. Parents can also, of course, negotiate unpaid parental leave with their employers, but employers do not have to guarantee parents their job back after unpaid leave. Most Canadian mothers return to employment sooner or later. Almost 2/3 of Canadian mothers with small children (three years of age or under) work outside the home.

Not all Canadian parents qualify for paid parental leave. In order to qualify, parents must meet the requirements for employment insurance (benefits the government pays to workers who have lost their jobs). That means that in the previous year they must have worked the equivalent of fur full-time months and paid into the Employment Insurance fund through paycheck deductions.

In Canada, the vast majority of parental leave is taken by mothers. The average length is 44 weeks. However, the number of fathers taking parental leave has increased from 3% to 27% in the past decade. Most of the increase in paternal leave has been in the province of Quebec, which offers “Daddy Days”, five weeks of parental leave that can only be taken by the father. In Quebec about 75% of eligible fathers take paid parental leave compared to 11% in the rest of Canada. Ten years ago, only 3% of Canadian fathers took paid leave after the birth of a baby. Many fathers also take a week or two of vacation time and some take unpaid leave.

I believe there are several advantages to Canada’s parental leave policies. One is that allowing mothers (or fathers) to be at home to care for babies reduces the need for infant day care, which is very, very expensive to provide with adequate quality. Another advantage is that longer maternity leave makes it easier for more mothers to breastfeed for longer. Research by two Canadian economists shows that the average length of breastfeeding did, in fact, increase after Canada increased the maximum length of parental leave to one year.

I also think that making parental leave available to fathers as well as mothers gives families more options, which is important now that so many mothers play an important role in providing for their families. Currently, almost 30% of Canada women earn higher wages than their husbands/partners. So for some families, having the father take some of the later months of parental leave makes the most economic sense. I am also in favour of any policies that are likely to increase the amount of time fathers spend looking after young children.

One policy I hope to see in Canada some day is the legislated right to work part-time, as is the case in the Netherlands. What I mean is that, within reason, employers would have to accommodate parents, or anyone else, who wanted to switch from full-time to part-time work or to return to work on a part-time basis after parental leave. That kind of policy would be a great help to parents trying to balance their work and caregiving responsibilities. And modern parents definitely need help with that.