15 years ago, the “maternity” leave system in Canada was overhauled to create a more flexible scheme. Both mothers and fathers had been able to access paid leave and allocate it between themselves since 1971, but this parental leave was only available for 10 weeks and was not utilized by the majority of Canadian fathers. The 2001 reforms expanded the availability of parental leave, distinct from the 15-17 weeks reserved for biological mothers' pregnancy and maternity leave, from 10 to 35 weeks. This reform was heralded as a major step forward for gender equality, as it went further in recognizing the caregiving role played by both parents. Maternity leave had long been recognized as being important for both the mother and the child’s physical health; by expanding the availability of benefits, the new system allowed for the more recently recognized mental health benefits associated with parental-child bonding and work-life balance to be more available to fathers as well. Like all social programs, parental leave can be analyzed through the lens of health equity: has the new legislative scheme distributed these positive health effects fairly amongst different segments of society? Though it is difficult to isolate any one social policy’s effect on social determinants of health, a closer analysis of Canada’s parental leave laws in practice reveals worrying distributional issues.
Parental leave in Canada operates through several laws and informal mechanisms. Job security under federal and provincial labour codes formally guarantees that parents can return to their positions following leave; this security simultaneously encourages leave and strengthens labour force attachment for new mothers in particular. Income replacement, on the other hand, is administered by Employment Insurance (EI) in all provinces except for Quebec, which established the Quebec Parental Insurance Plan (QPIP) in 2006. The statutory incentives in labour codes and income replacement schemes encourage sectors of parents who would otherwise not take parental leave following the birth or adoption of a child: particularly low-income individuals who cannot afford to forgo any pay and high-income individuals whose salary and the desire for career advancement provide powerful incentives to keep working. Furthermore, fathers historically have been disincentivized from taking leave both due to the wage gap (making it more profitable for a woman in a heterosexual couple to forgo her full income) and, more importantly, as a result of gendered caregiving roles. Now, “parental” leave that can be shared by either parent (up to 35 weeks through EI, up to 37 weeks through the QPIP) and “paternity” leave that is reserved for biological fathers (up to 5 weeks under the QPIP) are meant to encourage fathers to take time off following the birth or adoption of a child.
Commonly cited rationales for parental leave include increasing mothers’ labour-force participation, encouraging parental work-life balance during the first year of a child’s life, and providing financial support to new parents. Additionally, several physical and mental health benefits are attached to properly administered leave programs. Throughout Canada, the combination of maternity and parental leave allows biological mothers to physically recover from pregnancy and to breastfeed children for the period of time recommended by the WHO. Other indicators of children’s health, including infant mortality rate and the rate of vaccination, are positively correlated with the availability of leave benefits. Moreover, the mental health of both children and parents is impacted by the amount of time parents take off following birth or adoption. For mothers in particular, congruence between the amount of time women would like to take off work and the amount of time they are actually able to has been found to produce the greatest mental health benefits postpartum or post-adoption; the flexibility of parental leave in Canada since 2001, which allows parents to split the amount of leave available to them, may help in achieving this goal of personal balance.
However, parental leave in both the EI and the QPIP schemes, though more flexible and generous since 2001 and 2006, reflects existing inequalities along both gender and socioeconomic lines. For heterosexual couples throughout Canada, the customizable distribution of parental leave ignores the wage gap between men and women. Since parents are reimbursed for 55% of their usual earnings only up to a ceiling of $50 800 throughout Canada, the higher-earning parent (often the father) is still incentivized to keep working and cede his potential leave time to his partner. Embedded gender roles and stereotypes continue to influence the lower take-up of parental leave amongst Canadian fathers. In Quebec, the distinct, non-transferrable paternity leave has incentivized more fathers to take time off following birth or adoption. However, empirical results of the post-2006 program suggests that many fathers do not use their full paternity benefits and the majority of paternal leave weeks are still allocated to the female partner. Furthermore, single-parent families in Quebec – the majority of which are headed by women – are not able to access these non-transferrable benefits.
Moreover, a close analysis of parental leave reveals, in practice, differential benefits along socioeconomic lines. In general, the 55% wage-replacement level offered through EI does not make parental leave accessible to low-income individuals who rely on their full income to cover living expenses. In Quebec, the more flexible system allows parents to choose to take fewer weeks of leave in exchange for higher levels of income replacement. However, even 75% replacement is not sufficient for many low-income and single-income families.
Additionally, many employers offer “top-ups” as part of their compensation packages, meaning that employees may be reimbursed the remaining 25-45% of their earnings during their period of leave. In 2010, employees in Quebec were five times more likely than those in other Canadian provinces to receive these benefits. However, “top-ups” are generally more available to higher-income individuals, leaving low-income earners with base statutory levels. Furthermore, parents in the non-standardized workforce (disproportionately women) are both unable to access these employment benefits and face difficulty accessing statutory levels across Canada. Though qualification for leave benefits in Quebec requires $2000 worth of insurable income rather than the 600 hours required under EI, many students and non-standardized workers still face difficulty accessing even the statutory amount of compensation. Additionally, since these “top-ups” are not governmentally regulated, many employers provide these benefits only to their female employees, thus perpetuating the gender inequality of the leave system in practice.
Given the academic consensus that parental leave is both important for parents’ and children’s health and has the potential to combat gender inequality in the labour market, we should find these discriminatory effects of the EI and QPIP systems unsettling. This legislative scheme, however, doesn’t operate in a vacuum: the availability of social support structures such as compassionate care benefits, parents of critically ill children (PCIC) benefits and public childcare interact with and affect parental leave in complex manners. For example, among heterosexual couples in Quebec, the majority of fathers claim benefits at the same time as the mother, whereas in other provinces, fathers who claim benefits usually do so in staggered intervals with their partners. This important distinction suggests that the availability of publically provided childcare (which, despite serious rationing issues, is nominally open to all parents in Quebec) carries at least the same weight as physical and mental health considerations when parents consider how to allocate their statutory benefits.
Furthermore, many scholars advocate more flexibility in the time frame in which parents can access benefits. Parental leave weeks cannot be reserved for a period beyond the first year of a child’s life. Consequently, parents cannot access compensated and job-protected leave to care for sick children over a year old unless they meet the more stringent eligibility for compassionate care benefits under EI. This system has been criticized, as children from lower-income families are less likely to receive parental home-care after parental leave benefits expire.
Like all social programs, parental leave is tied up in a patchwork of legislation that aims to provide financial support for Canadian families. Through the EI 2001 reforms, and more dramatically through the 2006 introduction of the QPIP, parental leave has become steadily more flexible and available for all Canadian parents. However, until the introduction of leave incentives that counteract embedded gender inequality in the workplace and the inability of low-income parents to take a meaningful period of leave, the health benefits for both parents and children will continue to be inequitably distributed amongst Canadian families.