Brock-led research finds disparity between Canada, Quebec maternity leave

Some 38 per cent of all mothers across Canada – with the exception of Quebec – are excluded from maternity or parental benefits under the federal Employment Insurance (EI) program, new Brock-led research has found.

In contrast, only 10 per cent of mothers in Quebec are excluded from that province’s Quebec Parental Insurance Plan (QPIP), formed in 2006 when Quebec exited the federal EI parental leave program, says the research.

And, mothers in households earning $30,000 and above receive disproportionately higher access to benefits than lower-income households, especially under the federal EI, according to the research.

“Our findings quantify the extent to which Canada’s two labour market-based parental leave benefit programs unevenly reproduce and exacerbate class inequality,” says the study, tiled “Parental-leave rich and parental-leave poor: Inequality in Canadian labour market based leave policies.

The research, led by Lindsey McKay, postdoctoral fellow in The Department of Sociology and a Research Associate with Brock’s Social Justice Research Institute, set out to examine if and how social class – defined by family income – determines mothers’ access to maternal or parental leave under the EI and QPIP programs.

The team – which includes Brock’s Canada Research Chair in Gender, Work and Care Andrea Doucet and Sophie Mathieu, lecturer at the Université de Montréal – examined statistics from the national Employment Insurance Coverage Survey, compiled by Statistics Canada.

“We point out a divide between Quebec and the rest of Canada, and between households with different incomes, in terms of parental leave benefits in the first year of an infant’s life,” the research team concludes.

“The implication is that where parents live in Canada, and how much they earn, matters to whether and how care work is supported.”

“Quebec has the most generous parental leave in North America,” says Mathieu. “In Québec, a woman who earns minimum wage ($10.75 in 2016) would only need to work 186 hours to qualify to receive QPIP benefits, instead of 600 in the rest of Canada. QPIP thus represents an extension in coverage to persons not covered by the EI.”

Mathieu, who had her first child in 2008, did not qualify to receive benefits because she was a doctoral student. Her scholarship funding did not count as insurable earnings. However, her partner was entitled to use not only parental leave but also one unique feature of QPIP: up to five weeks of paid paternity leave for fathers. McKay did not qualify in 2011 when she gave birth to twins because she was a student and had a high-risk pregnancy.

Lead author McKay stresses the importance of maternity and parental leave programs.

“It’s a major asset that really helps you have some financial security in the first year of a child’s life,” she says. “For many families, this is a key buffer against poverty.”

The research has encouraged parents to share their experiences about being excluded from EI benefits. “Many are students who have to drop their studies and scramble to find work, or more hours at work, to try to reach 600 hours. They return to work soon after the birth only to pay into EI again. One of the worst stories was of excluded parents who were evicted because they couldn’t pay rent.” McKay says.

“It’s stressful enough to have a newborn baby to care for,” she recalls.

Doucet, who is a Professor of Sociology and Women’s and Gender Studies, says the team’s study extends the scope of international parental leave research dominated by research on the exclusion of fathers. “We now need greater attention to class differences to advance our understanding of exactly who is excluded from this very vital support system for children and their families.”

The study notes that the annual Employment Insurance Coverage Survey by Statistics Canada used in the study excludes residents of Canada’s three territories and Indigenous people living on First Nations reserves.

Doucet refers to a recent Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives report (CCAP) recommending that poverty statistics – including data on key policies and programs – should be published to give a clear picture of how Indigenous children are affected.

“What we have uncovered is just the tip of the iceberg,” says Doucet. “We support the CCAP recommendation to extend annual government surveys to reserves and the territories to provide critical poverty and income data – including access to maternity and parental leave benefits – for Indigenous mothers and fathers.”

The team’s research comes at a time when the federal government is reviewing maternity and parental leave provisions. McKay, Mathieu and Doucet’s study shows that proposed changes will have no impact on parents and children in greatest need of support. In fact, they would only widen the rich-poor divide.

McKay and Doucet are two of four Canadian academics in the International Network on Leave Policies and Research.

“Parental-leave rich and parental-leave poor: Inequality in Canadian labour market based leave policies” was published the September, 2016 Journal of Industrial Relations.

Read more stories in: Featured, Front Page, News, Research