As a Canadian, I tend to understand Americans pretty well I think.
I travel throughout the U.S. a lot, I read American news, and I even have an American passport!
But there are few things that strike me as very, very odd. And one of those things is America’s maternity policy (or rather, their LACK of maternity leave.) Last week I came across a few news articles detailing the push for more maternity leave, and I thought, “Well, duh!”
It was only a few years ago that I even realized that in the U.S. you’re only guaranteed two weeks of paid leave after the birth of a baby, and 12 weeks of unpaid leave (is that really true?)
And maybe most Americans find that normal. But I thought today I would let you know how it works in Canada. I certainly don’t think America should emulate everything Canada does, and the point of this post is not “Canada is better!” For instance, I completely agree that Canadians don’t pull our weight militarily. Even though our troops are excellent (and my son-in-law is one of them!), we just don’t invest enough in our military because we know America will protect us. So I think both countries have much to learn from each other. And on this one issue, I find the debate a little bizarre. So here’s how it works in the Great White North, and I don’t see any reason Americans couldn’t do it as well.
When Rebecca was born 23 years ago, Canada had just moved to our one year parental leave policy.
Up until then, it had been six months I think (it’s hard for me to remember that far back). People pay into the employment insurance system (well, really unemployment insurance, but they call it “employment insurance” because it sounds nicer.) Once you’ve worked the equivalent of 600 hours either in the last year or since your last time using EI, you’re now eligible for EI benefits. Parental leave gives you 57% of your income, up to a certain maximum, for up to 52 weeks, providing you plan to return to work afterwards (it can be a different job, but you have to promise to be returning to work). Your employer must keep your job open for you. Either parent can take the leave, and you can also choose to split it. My cousin is self-employed, but her husband works for a hospital. So after she had her kids, her husband took some parental leave time so they could both be home and he could help out after her C-section.
Because I had been working as a research assistant in my grad school program when I had Rebecca, I had been contributing to EI. So I decided to take the year off, even though I could easily have just finished my degree. I put my scholarships on hold, and got a whole year to enjoy my baby before I finished my degree and did some more work as a research assistant.
With Katie I wasn’t eligible because I hadn’t been contributing into EI beforehand. However, Keith took two weeks off because he was eligible to take pat leave. So you are eligible for the leave EVEN IF your spouse is a stay-at-home parent.
Parental leave is not like welfare where the government just gives money. It comes out of the EI system, which is funded through employer and employee contributions. You pay into the system, so you’re eligible to take money out of the system when you need it. And Canadians, on a pretty bipartisan basis, have decided that mat leave (or pat leave) is a worthy cause.
We have a new rule now where you can stretch out that leave to 18 months if you want, but your benefits remain the same. So you don’t get more money; you just get lower payments for longer, and your job stays open for you.
Some employers will also top up maternity leave. I hear that Queen’s University, for instance, where my husband used to be employed, will top up to 100% of your salary if you agree to return to work at Queen’s (and if you don’t, then you have to pay the extra money back).
But isn’t that hard on employers?
To a certain extent of course it’s disruptive for employers. But here’s the thing: It is much easier to train someone else to take over a job they’ll be doing for a year than to get someone to fill in for four weeks or twelve weeks. If a new mom takes off for 10 weeks, as often happens in the U.S. I guess, then chances are their job won’t be filled. They’ll just rely on other employees to do extra work and cover during those 10 weeks, which leaves other employees kind of resentful of the new mom anyway.
This way someone actually has time to be trained and can actually fill in.
Yes, the employer portion of EI will be higher when you create a new benefit, to be sure. But it’s spread over all workers, not just women or women of child-bearing age, so there’s a large pool.
But isn’t it hard on people who do a job for a year and then have to leave it when the new mom comes back to work?
I suppose. But on the other hand, mat leave positions (that’s what we call them) are highly sought after. They’re only a year long, and often people have a year that they want to work before moving onto the next thing. My son-in-law Connor, for instance, was initially hired for a mat leave position as an accountant, which was fine with him because he just wanted to work for a year or two before going to grad school. He was looking for something temporary anyway.
I know other people who have taken mat leave positions because their spouse was finishing up school, and within a year they’d be moving to a different city. It’s hard to get an employer to hire you for just a year, but if there are mat leave positions–then that’s a win-win!
Mat leave positions give new employees a chance to get work experience
Mat leave positions are often great entry-level jobs, too. They give someone experience, because employers are often more willing to take a chance on an inexperienced or young employee because they know they can get rid of them a year later, rather than having them stuck on the payroll. So it’s a great way for a young person to get their foot in the door.
And if they do a good job? Chances are that employer will suddenly have another job “open up” to keep that employee. That’s what happened with Connor. Even though he was only hired for a mat leave position, within three months of working he was told that he had a permanent job because they liked him so much. They’ll still hire the original employee back, of course, but they also offered a new position to Connor.
I just simply cannot imagine having to leave my baby and go back to work when that baby is only 10 weeks old.
They’re not even on a schedule yet! They’re not sleeping through the night and you’re exhausted. You have to pump constantly to keep up your milk supply. And that baby is so, so tiny. It would be so difficult to hand them over to someone else to care for. I think a newborn really needs its mother.
I tend to be pretty conservative on most issues, especially fiscal ones. I totally agree that government debt is a huge issue. But family leave policy, to me, is a no brainer. Families need to be supported. Babies need their moms, and moms need their babies. Having parents who bond well with their babies is better for society as a whole. And we need to be making it easier for people to have kids, because demographically, we do need it.
So I hope that America can see this as a bipartisan issue where hopefully you can find some agreement. Because this stuff matters.
Did you ever have to return to work when you had a newborn? What was it like? And I know I have lots of Aussie and British readers, and I’d love it if you all chimed in, too. What are your family leave policies? Let’s talk in the comments!
(And, please, let’s not do a Democrat vs. Republican thing in the comments or make it all political, and certainly not about Trump. I just want to talk about the ISSUE of parental leave, okay? Let’s make it nice, not ugly! I’ll delete any derogatory comments about individual politicians or different political parties!)
UPDATE: I decided to check the numbers so we’d have something concrete to talk about (imagine that?). Anyway, in Canada, the employee contributes 1.63% of their income, and the employer contributes 2.28%. So the employer basically pays a tax of 2.28% on each employee’s pay. The maximum employer contribution is $1,170, and the maximum employee contribution is $836, but that’s only if the employee makes $52000 or more. If they make less, it’s not that much. So while it is a tax on employers, it’s not like it’s 20% or even 10%.