The Liberal government has introduced changes to the federal parental leave benefits program. Details of the changes were announced early November and are set to come into force on December 3, 2017. This change is separate from the various Bill 148 changes coming down the pipe.
These are not additional monetary benefits, but rather, once the changes come into effect, eligible parents will be able to spread their 12 months of EI parental leave payments over 18 months. This means that the parent on leave will now be eligible to receive up to $326 a week for 18 months, as opposed to the current 55% of average weekly earnings or a max of $543 a week for 12 months. While the 18 months of leave can be split between two parents, it must be taken all at once. Expectant mothers will also be able to start their maternity leaves 12 weeks before the baby is due.
Who will be affected?
Currently, the changes only affect employees in the federally regulated sector, which includes banking, transportation, telecommunication companies and other federally regulated businesses. We will have to wait and see if the provinces similarly change their legislation to follow suit. So far only Ontario has publicly committed to doing so.
The new 18 month leave will only be available to parents beginning their leave after the changes come into effect on December 3, 2017, and is not available to parents currently on leave.
What will this mean for employers?
Unless an employer offers a “top-up” to an employee’s income during parental leave, they are not required to continue to pay an employee’s salary during a parental leave. Employers will continue to be required to hold the employee’s job open, now for 18 months instead of 12, and to continue to pay for their extended health care benefits during the leave period.
Federally regulated workplaces will need to amend existing parental leave policies to reflect the changes. If employers offer a “top-up” to the EI parents will receive on leave, then employers will need to decide how they will deal with situations where employees opt to take the full 18 months.
Additionally, any reference to lengths of parental leaves in contracts, including Collective Agreements, will need to be updated.
While having an employee take a parental leave can be disruptive to the workplace, employers need to be aware that pregnant employees are protected from discrimination by human rights law. Employers should take care not to make assumptions about what a pregnant woman can or cannot do. Comments, for example, about “mommy brain” are not appropriate. Employers cannot terminate an employee, or unilaterally change her working conditions, because she is pregnant. As with most things in life, good communication is key. If an employee tells you they are expecting, the first words out of your mouth should be congratulations!
Time will tell if employees will take advantage of the new 18 month leave. As the amendments do not affect the amount of money available to parents on parental leave, just length of time, it is anticipated that taking 18 months will not be affordable for many families. However, it is also anticipated that extending the leave period to 18 months will encourage more fathers to take a leave.