Use of parental leave unequal, despite policy objectives

January 11, 2019

Rachel Margolis, Associate Professor, Department of Sociology

Story and photo by Rob Rombouts

How can governments encourage equal use of parental benefits?

Some governments provide parental benefits which offer financial support for parents to temporarily stay home with new children. During this time, parents and infants form critical bonds, and having this time improves both parent and child outcomes.

But, not everyone has equal ability to access these benefits or chooses to use them, and policy changes often affect some subgroups more than others.

Rachel Margolis, Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology, along with her colleagues Michael Haan and Anders Holm, also from the department, and Feng Hou, from Statistics Canada, investigated how policy changes that extended benefits and offered new options impacted patterns of use and sharing parental leave in Canada, in their paper "Use of Parental Benefits by Family Income in Canada: Two Policy Changes."

Since 2000, two major changes in parental benefits were implemented in Canada.

In 2001, federal parental benefits to be shared between the two parents were extended from 10 to 35 weeks, which, combined with already existing maternity benefits (15 weeks), provided a total of 50 weeks paid time off in the first year of a child’s life. The hours worked required to qualify for benefits were also reduced.

In 2006, the province of Quebec introduced a new, 5‐week, non-transferable benefits period for fathers. It also increased the benefits rate and introduced flexibility in how benefits could be taken.

Both sets of changes were made, in part, to encourage fathers to use benefits. They were also designed to increase benefits eligibility for people in lower income brackets. The 2006 changes were more effective in this regard, by specifying time reserved for fathers.

“When time to be shared is introduced, women tend to take more of it, and nursing generally plays an important role in this decision-making,” said Margolis. “The changes in Quebec gave Dads who wanted to take leave the ok to do so, both from their partners, and from their work.”

Margolis said that high-income families are more likely to use parental leave in general, as they are more likely to qualify for leave through work requirements. Both the 2001 and 2006 policies were successful in encouraging greater use of benefits among lower-income families, but the policies encouraged fathers’ use of benefits much more in middle and high income families. Quebec's reform led to more sharing across all income groups, but three times as much for middle‐ and high‐income families than low‐income families.

When thinking about future potential federal policy changes, Margolis said that if the goal of governments is to create more gender equality, policies should provide time reserved for each parent separately, including reserved weeks for both parents, and higher top-ups.

More equal sharing has a big effect on how parents split household duties, and how they interact with their children, Margolis said.

These results are timely, and since 2015 the federal Liberal government has announced two other changes to parental benefits.

The first is an extension for federally-regulated employees, allowing them to spread 12-months of parental benefits over 18-months, at a lower pay-out per month.

Margolis said this is not likely to have the desired effect of having more fathers take time, as it does not actually make it easier for men to take time off and may even result in less women going back to work after the birth of a child.

“Eighteen months is thought to be too long if the goal is to get women back to work,” said Margolis. “The optimal time off is around six months off.”

In March 2018, there will be increased benefits of five additional weeks off, if both parents opt to take time. Margolis said this is likely to be more effective for increasing benefits use among fathers.

“I don’t think it will increase use as much in the rest of Canada, as it did in Quebec,” said Margolis. “It will likely have more uptake in gender-equal couples and have more impact among middle-income families. In those household with more traditional gender roles, the 5-week change likely won’t have as great an impact on parental leave for Dads.”

Margolis and her colleagues are continuing their research on parental benefits, with an examination of how benefits use impacts wage growth, both within couples and as a family unit.