Wider array of parental benefits still leave out too many

It’s good news that Canada’s parental leave policies are finally becoming more family-friendly. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s announcement of a flexible parental leave of up to 18 months (including 15 weeks of maternity leave) is all about offering parents more choice regarding care for their infants.

The federal Employment Insurance program is not increasing EI benefits, but parents can spread their current benefits  over 18 months. Moreover, the EI waiting period will be reduced to one week from two weeks starting next year. And now, Labour Minister Mary Ann Mihychuk has expressed interest in an exclusive paternity leave with benefits for fathers.

Choices are what employed parents with babies and young children need. We know that having a choice can lead to change. For example, Statistics Canada data show that when Ottawa extended the parental leave/ benefit to 12 months in 2001, there was a significant decrease in the number of infants who were in a variety of child-care services. In 1995, 36 per cent of Canadian infants were in such services, but by 2007, after the introduction of the one-year leave, the figure was down to 15 per cent.

Sadly, the dark side of Trudeau’s offer of more choice is that many employed parents in this rich land remain choice-poor. Many parents, including Indigenous mothers, will not be able to take advantage of maternity benefits, never mind the new, extended, flexible leave, because they do not meet the EI eligibility criteria.

Judith Martin is an adjunct professor in sociology at the U of S.

Our EI maternity and parental benefits remain problematic because:

a) Many low income parents work in non-standard, part-time, seasonal or term-contract situations, where layoffs are common. These parents often do not acquire the minimum 600 hours of work needed to qualify for maternity /parental benefits;

b) A 2007 statistical study of maternity benefits received by all new mothers living in Saskatchewan from 1993 to 2003 found that 60 per cent of new mothers who worked reported EI benefits, while 25 per cent of new mothers who worked before the birth of baby did not report any EI benefits. The remaining 15 per cent were not employed and thus did not receive benefits.

More recently in May 2016, a Canadian study revealed that some 40 per cent of mothers outside of Quebec did not receive EI payments because they lacked the 600 insurable hours to qualify.

The EI benefit is basically 55 per cent of insurable earnings. If the family’s breadwinner earns the minimum wage (SK: $10.72 per hour as of Oct. 1), it is obvious why some mothers get right back to work. A 2012 Statistics Canada publication indicates that 36 per cent of Canadian children have mothers who were back at work within two weeks of having a baby. Many of them have limited choice as they are from single-parent/low income families.

Numerous studies show that breastfeeding is beneficial to baby and mother. Thus more middle class mothers are choosing to breastfeed their babies exclusively for at least six months. Exclusive breastfeeding is recommended by Health Canada, the WHO and UNICEF, yet many low income mothers who get little or no EI benefits are denied this choice. This is a heartbreaker, as research shows that breastfeeding helps reduce hospital readmissions and the risk of obesity and diabetes.

Thankfully, there is some good news in respect to low-income families who have children up to 18 years of age. In July 2016, the federal government introduced the Canada Child Benefit which, for example, provides up to $ 6,400 per year for each child under age six. Within this plan, families with less than $ 30,000 in annual net income receive the maximum benefit. The benefit in itself is not taxed. However, to qualify, parents have to file a 2015 tax return, even if the family did not receive income in 2015.

By: Dr.Judith Martin Ph.D.
Adjunct Professor,Sociology,University of Saskatchewan                                            Volunteer, Saskatoon Breastfeeding Matters

Originally Published in the Saskatoon Star Phoenix on: September 28, 2016

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