Starting a family is a big deal for your life, your body and your pocketbook. Taking some time off to raise a child, fortunately, is protected by law in Canada, as is your right to have a small income while you’re caring for your baby.
However, taking a maternal or parental leave means navigating a complex system full of paperwork, federal and provincial law, and rules that can be hard to understand.
Understanding The Rules
Maternity and parental leave are actually run under provincial law. Each province has different rules as to how much you need to work in order to take a leave, how long your job will protected while you’re gone and the like. For instance, in B.C. there are no requirements for how long you need to work before taking a leave where your job is protected (see details here). In Alberta, you need to work for 52 consecutive weeks for your job to be projected (see here). Ontario residents must be hired 13 weeks before their leave to quality for protection under labour laws in that province. (See here).
How Much Money Could You Receive?
However, benefits are paid out through a federal program, Employment Insurance. Under provincial rules, the standards for qualifying may vary. “It’s possible to be eligible for take maternity leave under provincial law and not be eligible for EI benefits, and vice versa,” says Amber Strocel, a writer and blogger who created the Quick Guide to Canadian Maternity Leave in 2010.
To complicate matters, those who live in Quebec have their benefits through the Quebec Parental Insurance Plan, and the rules there synch up with provincial law.
How Does This Work If You're Self Employed?
The news in all this is that self-employed people can now quality for EI benefits as of January 2011. Since this group does not have an employer who must comply with provincial laws, it's not a matter of job protection. The new rules require self-employed workers to pay into EI for a year, and to prove they'll put 40% fewer hours in after the baby has arrived. However — and this is a big deal — you must continue to pay into EI after you are done leave, and you must pay into it for the duration of your self employed career. This is a long term commitment many self-employed people do not want to take on. Although the program does allow for sick leave and other benefits, which may come in handy later, it’s an additional expense and a risk many shy from. According to Strocel, it’s not a popular program. “I know many self-employed people and anecdotally I would say few of them are using it,” she says.
What's the Payoff?
EI pays you about 55% of your earnings, but only up to $45,900. That gives you a max weekly benefit payment of $485 per week. Many employers also offer a “top up” to get you closer to your original salary: some of these programs last for a year, but others don’t. Some employers also make you pay back your top up if you choose to stay at home with your child after your leave is over. Also, if you choose to stay at home longer than a year (many people have trouble finding childcare for infants but the options open up quite a bit after 18 months, so they stay home a bit longer), you need to find out if your province protects your job. Some employers have their own programs, particularly if they are unionized, and may protect your job for even longer than 18 months.
Both parents can split aspects of a leave. There is maternity leave, which is 15 weeks only available to birth moms. Those who adopt (or dads) are only eligible for the 35-week parental leave. (Many argue this discrepancy should be scrapped, especially for adoptive parents.)
How Can You Apply?
Strocel’s maternity leave guide offers a very handy flow chart that guides you through the process of applying for leave: I recommend it. But here’s a short version: choose the dates you want to start and end your leave (if you are combining leave with your partner, work that into your plan), inform your employer, acquire your ROE (record of employment) when you finish your time at the office, and forward it along to the government with your EI form. You'll wait for about a 2-week period - and then you'll start collecting your money. Whew!
Is It Possible To Make Extra Income?
You can make money while you’re on EI with a child: $50 per week or up to 25% of your weekly benefits. This is a very restrictive amount and Strocel says she doesn’t see many people take advantage of it, except those who run home-based businesses like selling Pampered Chef or Avon or operating a shop on the craft web site Etsy.
Some who have longtime freelance contacts sometimes work while on EI and simply invoice after their leave is over — again, this only works with established, trusted relationships and organizations who don’t mind holding invoices for a few months.
The Best Place To Be A Parent?
Canada’s maternity leave program is sometimes offered up as a model, as we have a year off and decent coverage. However, it’s not quite what’s offered in some Scandinavian countries (or even in Quebec), which offer dedicated leave for fathers as well.
Our system is a little complex and not consistent across the nation, but it does offer a way for people to start families, care for their kids, pay the basic bills and keep their jobs safe - a big help when undertaking one of the biggest jobs of all!