Chantal Braganza is a writer based in Toronto and a senior editor at Chatelaine.
Earlier this year, my co-workers sent me off on a maternity leave with a potato chip toast, bringing their favourites – shrimp crisps, Miss Vickie’s Salt and Vinegar, Ruffles Double Crunch Ketchup – to the Google Hangout. It felt nice to talk about snacks instead of, say, anxieties around caring for a newborn during a global pandemic. I also felt fortunate. Looking forward to returning to work with a group of people I like spending time with is a blessing in and of itself. But that I’m able to take a leave at all is also a privilege – particularly at a time when the social and economic upheaval of COVID-19 has thrown people’s plans around children and parental leave up in the air.
The first parental work-leave protections in Canada were introduced in 1921 – an unpaid six weeks, in British Columbia, and for women specifically. Paid leave as we know it now wasn’t a national benefit until 1971, when the federal government expanded its employment insurance program to include 15 weeks for pregnant and newly postpartum mothers. Not everyone loved its implied idea that raising children was a form of economically valuable labour, i.e. “real” work.
“At a time when unemployment is high and likely to continue so,” The Globe and Mail’s editorial board wrote at the time, “all available money should be directed to alleviating real need and not frittered away as bonuses to those who have neither earned nor need them.” It took more than a decade and a six-week mail strike by the Canadian Union of Postal Workers for the idea of paid parental leave to truly go mainstream, and another 20 years afterwards for the benefit to expand to a year. In 2017 the federal government extended it to 18 months, albeit the same amount of benefits are stretched to cover that additional time.
While Canada loves to compare our parental leave program to the United States, which federally only requires up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave, we actually don’t measure up all that well globally. We rank 23rd among the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development countries in paid leave length, with places such as Japan, Sweden, South Korea and Portugal far outstripping us in terms of paternal- or second-parent-specific leave. But what really sends us further down the slope is how these benefits are calculated and distributed, and to whom.
Since Canada’s paid leave is distributed through Employment Insurance you have to qualify for EI to get it. Generally, middle-to-high income families tend to benefit from it the most, and therefore participate in it. This is because the program pays participants only up to 55 per cent of their earnings, which for many amounts to a monthly income well below the cost of living. Most people in freelance, contract and shift work also have a hard time qualifying for it, if they qualify for it at all.
Not only does a parent’s access to leave have implications for their choices concerning, say, pediatric guidelines around nursing and sleeping, it also all but ensures families who can’t take advantage of parental leave end up spending more on daycare, often at the higher infant enrolment rates.
This is our status quo at the best of times; the past year has been the opposite. The pandemic suddenly put a massive number of Canadians out of work, and meant early on that many expecting parents suddenly wouldn’t qualify for mat/pat leave under its usual hours-worked requirement. Under the eventually-established Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), many households didn’t receive the amount of weekly benefit they’d otherwise have received, or waited months for the parental leave they did qualify for to be paid out. Some families even relied on loans and credit cards to make ends meet while waiting for delayed payments.
Last October, researchers acknowledged these effects in a COVID-specific review of our country’s mat leave program for the journal Canadian Public Policy. We know that women, particularly racialized women and women in service and care-oriented industries, haven’t economically recovered alongside their white and male counterparts. “The already wide gap between parental-leave-rich and parental-leave-poor households has implications for which infants and young children receive financially supported parental care time,” the authors wrote. “This divide may deepen during and after the pandemic, especially for lower-income, racialized, new immigrant, and Indigenous families.”
One way of imagining better parental leave would be comparing the rest of Canada with Quebec, which administers its own benefits. While leave is still tied to employment, the requirements are less stringent (a parent needs to have earned $2,000 during the qualifying period) and pay more: as much as 75 per cent of the parent’s original income, up to an income of $83,500 this year.
Another approach – one I believe in – is to untether leave benefits from employment insurance. A new parent’s ability to participate in child care wouldn’t be tied to their wage history at all. That 1971 editorial disparaging paid mat leave may sound like a sexist take borne of its time, but treating parental leave benefits as an interruption to the “real” work so-called deserving parents should otherwise be doing isn’t all that more evolved. Domestic work is a historically un- and underpaid form of labour unto itself, a socially and economically valuable service our society relies on.
If we want to imagine a future beyond this pandemic in which people of all means still want to have and raise children, we need to pay attention to more than just revamping education and child care. Better parental leave needs to be part of that future, too.
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