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Chief operations officer of cannabis company Beleave Inc. Bill Panagiotakopoulos holds his son Ares, 3, in their home in Oakville, Ont., on Feb. 1, 2019.

Marta Iwanek/ The Globe and Mail

Three male employees at cannabis company Beleave Inc. welcomed new babies to their families last year, and not one took more than two weeks off. Chief operations officer Bill Panagiotakopoulos took three days. “People felt bad about leaving,” he told The Globe and Mail in January. “The mentality I’d grown up with is it’s really not an option for the dads."

The federal government is aiming to change that mentality, rolling out a new parental leave program on March 17 that gives an extra five to eight weeks of paid time off when both parents share the leave. While that may be a boon to new parents, many small businesses say backfilling the leaves will be challenging: the duration is not really long enough to hire and train a temp, but long enough that existing staff could get burned out from picking up extra work.

“For an 18-month leave, you can hire someone. For five weeks, you wouldn’t,” said Corinne Pohlmann, senior vice-president of national affairs for the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB). “[Business owners] don’t want to take anybody away from having children, but it is difficult for a lot of small firms … Often it’s the owner who ends up taking on the extra load.”

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The Parental Sharing Benefit was introduced in the 2018 federal budget, with an implementation date initially set for this June. The government completed technical updates to the employment insurance system faster than expected, so the start date was moved to mid-March. Parents will get five extra weeks of paid Employment Insurance benefits if they choose the 12-month leave option, while those who chose the 18-month option (which pays less per week) will get eight more weeks. The leave has been called “use-it-or-lose-it leave” as it goes to the parent not already on leave, typically the father, and doesn’t reduce the time offered to the other parent.

“This type of benefit has been proven to encourage a more balanced sharing of child care responsibilities that goes well beyond the five-week period,” states a government backgrounder. In Quebec, where paid leave targeted at the non-birth parent already exists, 80 per cent of new fathers claimed parental benefits in 2016, according to Statistics Canada.

Toronto employment lawyer Jordan Kirkness said his firm, Baker McKenzie, hasn’t heard many questions from employers about the new leave. “I still think that it’s uncommon for men to take the time,” he said, adding he expects those attitudes to shift once families realize there’s now a financial incentive.

Jocelyn Bamford, who runs a lobby group focused on the interests of small manufacturing companies, calls the possibility of dealing with five-week leaves “a disaster,” saying it adds to the “death by a thousand cuts” her members are experiencing. “Maybe you could survive if you could spread it out, but five weeks in a row is hugely burdensome.” As someone with kids of her own, the founder of the Coalition of Concerned Manufacturers of Ontario said she finds the idea “lovely” – in theory.

Natalia and Bill Panagiotakopoulos read with their son Ares, 3, in their home in Oakville, Ont.

Marta Iwanek/ The Globe and Mail

“There are tons of things that are lovely," said Ms. Bamford, vice-president of sales and marketing for Automatic Coating Ltd. "It would be lovely if I didn’t have to work 14 hours a day to keep my business going. I can’t ask other people to take on my burden for choices I’ve made.”

Ms. Bamford said there are safety issues that come with shifting employees’ roles in a factory setting, as many tasks are dangerous and require training. “You’ll have to bump someone who maybe isn’t qualified up. In some positions, you don’t have a redundant person.”

While she sees planning for parental leave as almost impossible, because it’s hard to know who might be planning to have children, other employers say they hope to work with their staff to get warning even earlier than is required. The regulations in most provinces, and those for federally regulated employees, require workers to give four weeks of notice for parental leave.

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Mr. Panagiotakopoulos, from Beleave, said he’d like to be privy to key employees’ plans, and that three or four months would give him adequate time to get ready for most leaves. The company has trained people to cover for each other, but many jobs in the cannabis sector require security clearance that can take more than six months to obtain. “We’d immediately hire a temp to fulfill the basic duties and have everyone else filling the more sensitive positions,” he said.

Communication around the return-to-work date can be as important for employers as initial notice of the leave, said the CFIB’s Ms. Pohlmann.

People on parental leave don’t always return to their jobs, and late notice of the change of plans can leave small businesses scrambling. If management has hired a temp to fill in during the leave, it’s ideal if they can offer that person a permanent job before they line up a new gig, she said. “People think it will affect their EI benefits, but it won’t.”

At Hamilton brewery Collective Arts, management has already dealt with several paternity leaves and is presently preparing for another. Co-founder Matt Johnston said backfilling a temporary absence is always challenging, especially for a specialized role. “Everyone’s happy to see that person come back.”

He also sees it as the company’s responsibility to support employees and their families.

“When you look at the greater scheme of things, you want high quality of life for employees … Whatever we can collectively do to assist in that is very positive,” said Mr. Johnston, who has three children. “We’re an entrepreneurial company and everyone works very hard. We need to have equal commitment back to our staff.”

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