A new study says the Liberal government should rethink federal parental benefits and overhaul a system that is leaving out too many families and women.
The study released Wednesday by the Institute for Research on Public Policy says the federal government should consider taking parental benefits out of the employment insurance system and give it a new federal program to ensure that more parents can qualify for benefits.
As is, the study says, there is a cohort of those new parents, particularly mothers, who don’t qualify for benefits, or can’t qualify because they are self-employed or freelancers – a problem likely to increase with the widening of the “gig” economy.
Self-employed parents can voluntarily opt-in to the employment insurance system in order to qualify for parental benefits, but the study notes take up is low.
The study also finds that parents from lower and modest income homes – those the federal government would consider as hoping to join the middle class – don’t take benefits for an entire year.
The study’s author says it all leads to questions of how inclusive the parental leave system really is, and whether a change in rules would mean parents aren’t forced back to work sooner than they are meant to in order to make ends meet.
“Access to paid benefits, job protected leave, and then child care means that woman can move back into the workforce after having kids,” says Jennifer Robson, an assistant professor of political management at Carleton University.
“But I think there’s also this issue of, is the system right now working in a way that gives equitable coverage both on getting into the system but also being able to actually maximize the use of the benefits?”
New parents account for one out of every five EI claims filed, a statistic that wasn’t foreseen when the system was set up in 1971 and designed as a niche add-on to employment insurance, Robson said.
The federal parental leave program pays out benefits for up to 15 weeks for new mothers and allows parents to split an additional 35 weeks.
The Liberals want to extend federal parental leave to 18 months, but not include a similar increase in benefits.
The paper suggests there is some merit to extending benefits to 18 months, including allowing two-parent families to split the leave, but pushes the federal government to ensure changes don’t leave out low-income parents as critics have warned.
As it is, Canadians receiving parental benefit earn on average of $427 a week for a year. Spread over 18 months, that works out to $305 per week, or a little over $1,200 per month.
Robson says the Liberals could look at boosting the family supplement, an extra $41 a week paid to the bottom 4.5 per cent of income earners on EI. The government could also find a way to better align the Canada child benefit, which is calculated off a parent’s last income tax return that could be higher or lower than their current earnings.