Improving Maternity and Parental Benefits for Women Outside of Québec: Proposals for Law Reform

According to NAWL’s vision, every mother should receive income replacement and material support during the first years of caring for a child. Bearing and raising children should not impoverish women, as is now the case. No single initiative is sufficient to drastically improve the situation of all mothers in Canada. Nonetheless, several areas of the law cry out for reform by the Federal government.

Presently, a parent’s right to temporarily absent herself (or himself) from work as well as the modalities of return to work are covered by provincial employment standards legislation or, in the case of workers in sectors under federal jurisdiction, by the Canada Labour Code.

Unless parents live in Québec, maternity and parental benefits are granted through the federal regime set up by the Employment Insurance Act (EI Act). As of 2001, in order to be eligible for these maternity and parental benefits, a person must have accumulated 600 hours of insurable employment during the last 52 weeks. Women that have given birth are eligible for maternity benefits, while either parent, including adoptive parents, is eligible for parental benefits. With the exception of the few who qualify for the family supplement, benefits represent only 55% of insurable income and are taxable. Maximum insurable earnings are $40,000 per year, for a maximum weekly benefit of $423. A waiting period of two weeks is imposed on one parent, usually the mother, as she is almost always the first parent to draw benefits. (For a more in-depth analysis, see NAWL’s discussion paper on maternity and parental benefits, available at www.nawl.ca).

Society as a whole benefits in a particular and unique way from childbearing and childrearing. The Supreme Court decision in the Reference re Employment Insurance Act underlines this fact, stating that, “Children are one of society’s most important assets, and the contribution made by parents cannot be overstated.” According to the Court, “An interruption of employment due to maternity can no longer be regarded as a matter of individual responsibility”. At the same time, the decision states that: “the social nature of unemployment insurance requires that Parliament be able to adapt the plan to the new realities of the workplace”.

As of January 2006, the Québec Parental Insurance Plan offers much more generous benefits to a much broader group of new parents, including self-employed parents and the second parent in same-sex families. We think it is time that some key elements of the Quebec plan were introduced into the EI Act so that mothers and fathers in the rest of Canada can benefit from similar improvements (see Section 1).

In 2005 and 2006, NAWL initiated a pan-Canadian consultation about how to improve maternity and parental benefits under the EI Act. We started dialogue within the women’s movement and the labour movement about the issues at stake, both within and outside of Québec. Our consultation took the form of a series of one-day workshops with feminist activists, trade unionists, working mothers and caregivers as well as a summit meeting with a group of stakeholders and selected experts on maternity and parental benefits in February 2006. Finally, in May 2007, we held a workshop with key leaders from the women’s movement and the labour movement. The proposals in this paper are the result of the broad consensus reached during this on-going consultation process.

We recommend that the current federal benefit regime be expanded through the development of specific rules within EI for workers who apply for maternity and parental benefits. This would bring Canada into line with the 2003 recommendation of a United Nations Committee on Discrimination against Women. This committee recommended that Canada reform maternity and parental benefits so that they cease to be a source of inequality for women. And given that society as a whole benefits from the work parents do raising young children, we recommend that the Federal government contribute directly to financing this much-needed expansion to the current maternity and parental benefit regime. (For a more in-depth discussion of the financial implications of this expansion, see NAWL’s paper Thinking About How to Finance New Parental Benefits (2007), available on-line at www.nawl.ca).

During our consultations on maternity and parental benefits, many participants insisted that all mothers need support, whether or not they have been doing the kind of work that allows them to qualify for EI benefits. We came to the conclusion that a complementary universal support program (Section 2) that reaches mothers who do not qualify for benefits under EI or receive inadequate benefits under that program is also essential. This kind of support program relies on the Federal Government’s spending power to support families with new babies or newly adopted children. At the same time, we recognize Québec’s right to determine its own social policies and thus to opt out of any such program with full financial compensation, if it so wishes.

Finally, it is impossible to examine the practical difficulties associated with the current maternity and parental benefits program without touching on the question of employment standards governing leave and the right to return to work after maternity and parental leave. Even if these standards generally fall under provincial jurisdiction, the Federal government should show leadership on this question by setting an example through the standards set out in the Canada Labour Code (Section 3).

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