Michael Ford
Employment & Labour

Extended parental leave could pose challenges

Employers offering to augment parental leave benefits should ensure their policies are up-to-date now that the federal government has announced an extended leave option of 18 months, says Windsor employment and education lawyer Jessica Koper.

If companies or organizations have policies stating they will top-up employment insurance benefits during parental leave for employees, they should determine whether those plans would continue for the entire period if parents choose to take the time off, says Koper, associate with Shibley Righton LLP.

“If they are caught in a policy they haven’t reviewed, it could mean they have to top up an employee for a longer period or for a greater amount than they may have intended,” Koper tells AdvocateDaily.com.

Under the Liberal government’s planned changes to the Employment Insurance Act, parents can choose to extend their leaves for up to 18 months, an increase from the previous maximum of 12 months.

However, that would mean stretching out government-issued benefits at a lower rate. For example, parents who take one year receive 55 per cent of their income to a maximum of $535 a week, the Globe and Mail reports. An 18-month leave would mean receiving 15 weeks at the 55 per cent pay rate, followed by 61 weeks at 33 per cent.

Koper believes many parents likely won’t take the longer option because the lower benefit rate may be too much of a financial strain.

“Especially in cities like Toronto with the high cost of living, I don’t think many parents would be able to take 18 months, even if they wanted to,” says Koper, who recently had a baby. “On the other hand, some parents may experience substantial financial savings as they would not have to pay for child care costs for those extra six months.”

There is also the added stigma that may be attached to taking the extended absence from work, she notes. While a 12-month leave is common and generally accepted by employers, parents may face pressure to return to work sooner than 18 months, she says.

Taking a year and a half away from a job may come with further challenges depending on the field, she says.

“Subject to the employee’s type of work, role, and any specialized training or ongoing learning curves the position may entail, there may be greater difficulties returning to work after an 18-month absence,” she says.

From an employer’s perspective, organizations should be prepared to protect jobs for the entire extended leave.

“There are already issues of job discrimination for employees who take 12 months, and with the extension, employers are still legally obligated to hold that position for the full 18 months. It may involve more planning for employers,” she says.

Koper says she is supportive of the planned changes, but several key issues remain unchanged.

For example, some parents are not eligible for parental leave benefits from Employment Insurance because they don’t trigger the minimum insurable hours, she says.

“And those who make less than the capped amount are receiving less than others. Those types of accessibility issues have been ignored to date, something that has been improved in Quebec, for instance,”  she says.

According to the Globe, weekly cheques work out to nearly $900 a week in Quebec, and it is the only province to offer five weeks of paid leave specifically for fathers.

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