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Webinar Content: Understanding the Parental Sharing Benefit and the Caregiving Benefits

On May 14, 2019, the Vanier Institute of the Family hosted a public webinar for HR professionals, labour representatives and employers on the parental sharing benefit and the caregiving benefits in Canada, focused on effectively managing family leaves within workplaces.

Andrew Brown (Director General, Employment Insurance Policy) and Rutha Astravas (Director, Employment Insurance Special Benefits) from Employment and Social Development Canada presented on the changes to parental leave that came into effect on March 17, 2019, including the new “use it or lose it” 5- to 8-week leave available to second parents.1, 2

Vanier Institute CEO Nora Spinks facilitated conversation with webinar participants, providing the “family lens” as we explored the impact of these new benefits on employers, employees and their families in Canada.


Webinar Transcript: Understanding the Parental Sharing Benefit and the Caregiving Benefits

The following is a transcript of this webinar, which provides an overview on the parental sharing benefit and the caregiving benefits in Canada.

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Nora Spinks: My name is Nora Spinks, the CEO of the Vanier Institute of the Family, and today I’m going to be joined by Andrew Brown, Director General of the Employment Insurance Policy Directorate at Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC), and his colleague, Rutha Astravas, also a Director of Employment Insurance Special Benefits, specifically looking from the viewpoint of Employment and Social Development Canada.

We’d like to begin by acknowledging the traditional Territories on which we all gather across the country today and to pay our respects to Indigenous Elders past, present and emerging. Today, we’re going to be focusing specifically on parental benefits, shared parental benefits and caregiving benefits, and just to provide some context, we’re going to be looking at this through the lens of diversity and inclusion.

When we think about Canada and we think about families in Canada, we think about diversity; and we want to make sure that everybody understands what benefits are available to them and how best to access those benefits. We want everybody to feel included. We want people, regardless of the structure of your family, the way in which you parent or co-parent, that you are aware of what’s available to you here in the country.

Parenthood is diverse. You could be a parent in a more traditional relationship or any other kind of structure of relationship that you can imagine in Canada today, including, as some of you might have heard about, the “co-mommas” – two women who are co-parenting who received parental status by the courts but were not in a relationship themselves and now have co-parenting status. Another example of the diversity of parenthood these days, you may have heard about the “Mamas and the Papas,” that’s two couples, two gay couples, two women and two men, who have decided to raise two children together and the four of them are co-parenting. Those are just some examples of the diversity in parenthood in Canada today.

We also know that partnering and/or coupling changes in Canada year to year and you may be in one relationship one year and, a couple of years later, you may be in a different relationship entirely. We want to make sure that everybody feels a sense of belonging and recognition of their lifestyle and their family structure.

Fatherhood in Canada has been evolving over the last several decades and fathers are now actively involved in co-parenting. In the ’70s, people would say “My wife is with child,” and now we’re hearing more recently, “My wife is expecting,” and in the 1990s and early 2000s, we heard, “We are expecting.”

So, fatherhood is growing and changing drastically in the paid labour force, in terms of active involvement and in the world of work. Motherhood is also changing, with mothers more likely to be involved in the paid labour force. When we think about families in Canada, we’re seeing more sharing of both the parenting and household management, and this brings us to some reasons in the rationale for the benefits that we are going to be focusing on in our conversation today. I’ll begin by asking Andrew Brown to give us a little bit of an update and sort of a context to where this new shared parenting came from.

Andrew: Great, and thanks, Nora. The parental sharing benefit, it really does respond to the changing role of fathers as you’ve described. But also what we’ve seen, based on evidence from Quebec with the Quebec Parental Insurance Plan (QPIP) as well as international examples, is that changes that include “use it or lose it” benefits have been really beneficial in terms of encouraging fathers to take some time off as well and provide care to a new child.

Nora: So, can you just explain the difference between the Quebec parental benefit and this new shared parental benefit?

Andrew: One of the things here is that, in the case of Quebec, they have a paternity benefit, and so that is specifically available to what are called birth fathers, so the biological father of the child. We’ve taken a slightly different approach with the Employment Insurance program, because we want it to be as inclusive as possible. And so, it is in fact available to parents regardless of whether its specifically the mother or the father, and we’ll get a little bit into about how we’ve adapted it into our own program, but again just to say that it’s inclusive, it’s for both birth parents as well as for adoptive parents.

Nora: Just to be clear, the new shared parental benefit is for any second parent, including fathers and same-sex partners. So, in the case of a solo parent, can a grandparent or other adult qualify as a second parent?

Andrew: A grandparent would not be able to qualify, since the new measure is specifically designed to encourage parents to take time off from work to provide care to their new child. So, it is for people who are recognized as parents by the province or territory, so it wouldn’t recognize a grandparent in that sense.

Nora: Do they have to be named on the birth certificate, or can they just be recognized as a second parent?

Andrew: If they’re on the birth certificate, then that’s really easy for us, because the province or territory recognizes them, and we’d be able to pay parental benefits. But what’s actually crucial is that they are recognized by the province or territory. So, we would look for some evidence of that to be able to administer the benefits as needed.

Nora: Great, thank you. Rutha, can you sort of walk us through the special benefits? You’re the special benefits expert within the directorate. Can you just sort of describe how that fits with some of the other programs?

Rutha: Thanks, Nora, and welcome everyone to the webinar today – it’s really nice to have this opportunity to present to you. So, talking about the EI special benefits, we have five and I’ll walk through them really quickly.

The first one you’re more likely to be familiar with is the maternity benefit, and that’s provided to pregnant or nursing women, and it’s up to 15 weeks that are available surrounding childbirth. These benefits can be accessed in the period from 12 weeks before the expected birth up to 17 weeks after the birth.

Second, we have the parental benefits. Parental benefits are to provide care for a newborn or a newly adopted child and, as of 2017, there are now two choices that parents have: either 35 weeks or 61 weeks at a lower rate, and we’re going to talk a little bit more about that in detail in this presentation. Also, within this, we have the new parental sharing benefit measure that we’ve been talking about on the call.

Third is the sickness benefit, and this is for workers who take time off due to illness, injury or quarantine, and there are up to 15 weeks available.

Fourth, we have the compassionate care benefit, and this is to provide care to a family member who has a serious medical condition and significant risk of death. So, we also call this end-of-life care.

Finally, we have the family caregiver benefit. This is our newest benefit, and it’s to provide care or support to a critically injured child, or critically ill or injured adult. So, in the case of a child, there are up to 35 weeks available; in the case of an adult, there are up to 15 weeks available. What’s important to note is that the parental compassionate care and family caregiver benefits are all shareable among eligible family members. When we say sharing, both, or if there are more people sharing, they all have to be EI eligible and apply individually.

Nora: Okay, so, just to be clear, if somebody’s on a parental leave and they are caring for a family member who is critically ill, can they piggyback, or add one benefit following the next?

Rutha: Thanks for asking that question. We know that a lot of things can happen while you are on an EI claim. The answer is yes, provided that the individual calls Service Canada and has the required documents and meets the required benefit types. So, in the case of having a critically ill child, you can call to ask to switch to the Family Caregiver Benefit for children and you would have to submit a medical note and more details in order to access that benefit. Then, depending on the other circumstances of your claim, you may be able to return to parental benefits afterwards.

Nora: It sounds to me like the programs are designed to provide as much support as possible to a family, and to fully understand the flexibility, it’s best that the individual speak to Service Canada.

Rutha: That’s a really great point. The EI benefits are complicated, but there’s also a lot of flexibility within them, so it is important for claimants to contact Service Canada if anything happens, whether they choose to return to work early, whether there’s another illness in the family or they themselves fall ill. They may be able to switch to sickness benefits, for example, changing from the Compassionate Care Benefit, for example. So again, it’s really hard to say in advance; there are lots of circumstances, but calling Service Canada at the earliest occasion is really important.

Nora: So, if I’m a Human Resource professional and somebody indicates to me in my organization that they are expecting a child or dealing with a family emergency or caring for somebody who is ill or injured, as an HR professional, would it be a good idea for me to direct them to Service Canada to work out the details?

Rutha: That’s one thing, and the other is that the individual should look at each of the benefits on Service Canada websites to determine which they are most likely to be eligible for. And we’re going to talk a little bit more about the differences between the compassionate care and the family caregiver benefit shortly.

Nora: On the call today, we have people from all sectors, from government, health care, NGOs, private sector, public sector, academia… It really doesn’t matter what kind of workplace you’re in, if you’ve got questions about EI and eligibility and the complexity or the nuances of program, it’s best to check and not make assumptions.

Rutha: Absolutely, and it’s always important to contact Service Canada at the earliest circumstance, so that you don’t miss out on benefits, because some of them have really specific times during which they are available, such as maternity.

Nora: Let’s go back to the shared benefit for a second, just to reiterate that the EI eligible parents include adoptive and same-sex parents who are eligible for the parental sharing benefit. Maybe, Andrew, you could tell us a little bit about the new benefit – an overview of how it was designed and how it all fits, and then we’ll come back to Rutha to get into the specific details about what it all means for individuals and their families.

Andrew: Yes, so returning to the parental sharing benefit, and I mentioned before that this was really a measure to encourage all parents to take some time off to provide care to a new child, and so one of the things that we did – and based on what we were hearing from different groups – is that we thought closely about the design and wanted to come up with our own spin on the design, but with the idea of being as inclusive as possible.

What we actually did is that we took those existing 35 weeks, which was the former system of parental benefits that were available – that’s from the standard choice of parental benefits – and we extended that from 35 weeks to 40 weeks. The idea there is that nobody is losing access to weeks. But the other thing that happened was that we capped the amount that any individual parent could receive at 35. So, there’s still the possibility of one parent taking all 35 weeks, but there’s an additional 5 weeks there, the ones that we call “use it or lose it,” for an additional parent to access, so that first parent can’t take all of the weeks.

Nora: So, it truly is about sharing.

Andrew: It truly is about sharing.

Nora: Great. Rutha, can you give us some specifics with respect to the EI benefits? We’ve talked a little bit about standard versus extended and sometimes that causes a little bit of confusion. If I’m a parent, number one parent, and I want to take a standard leave, where does that leave the second parent?

Rutha: Sure, it’s really important to note that parents, when they go ahead to apply for EI benefits – for parental benefits – they have to make a choice up front between two options. You can’t move on without doing so up front. So, as we were talking about, there are 5 weeks available of standard parental benefits. That means, as Andrew was saying, you can go up to 40 weeks, and those are paid at 55% of your average earnings, or if you chose the extended option, which pays at a lower rate, you could get 8 weeks of extended parental benefits. These extended weeks are paid at the lower rate of 33% of your average earnings. What it means if you take all of the weeks available to you, the 35 weeks per person, or 61 weeks per person, you will receive roughly the same amount, but it’s your choice of if you want to take it over 12 months or over 18 months.

Nora: So, it’s a little bit like planning your cash flow. So, how much time are you away and how much income are you going to receive while you are away? You can receive that over either 1 year or 18 months?

Rutha: That’s right, and it’s about how much time you want to take or need to take, based on your own circumstances.

Nora: Great. So, if we think about this, the 5 shared parental weeks paid at 55%, and both parents choose the same option, either the 5 standard weeks or the 8 weeks, just explain this maximum. What does it mean by a maximum of 61 extended parental weeks, or 69 when shared? Just explain that maximum thing. Maybe Andrew, can you talk about maximums?

Andrew: What we’re really talking about here is that we want to make sure that there are some weeks left on the table for another parent. Under the former system, there were up to 61 when parents chose the extended option; there’s 69. So how does this maximum play into it? It means that if the first parent, let’s suppose it’s the mother, decides to put in an application for 20 weeks, then there’s 49 weeks available on the table for the second parent.

On the other hand, if that first person doesn’t actually come in for an application, chooses zero, even though there are 69 weeks available on the table, the other parent could only take 61, so they are capped: those extra weeks are always for a different parent. So, if somebody were to come in and say, “I’d like to take all 69 weeks myself, or 65 weeks,” we’d say, “Sorry, the maximum is 61. Those remaining additional weeks are for another parent.”

That’s the emphasis on sharing and getting all parents involved in the parenting role, and also experiencing that absence from the workplace, because, you know, that’s one of the things where there continues to be some difference in terms of what women experience, whereas men tend to face that in smaller numbers. So, this now is providing other parents including fathers with that same choice, whether to take some time off in terms of leave and access benefits that are dedicated to that parent.

Nora: With the exception that if I’m the one who gives birth, and I chose to go back to work after 2 weeks instead of the 17, the rest of those weeks are not available to the second parent.

Andrew: That’s correct. One of the things we haven’t really spoken about are maternity benefits. This change doesn’t affect the maternity benefits; they continue to be available to any birth mother, so someone who has been going through a pregnancy has access to maternity benefits for the purpose of pregnancy and recovery from pregnancy.

Nora: So, oftentimes, people will refer to themselves as receiving maternity benefits, when in fact, it’s maternity plus parental and maybe shared parental.

Andrew: That’s exactly right.

Rutha: That’s an important factor in the language, too, because many people think maternity is about women, paternity is about fathers, but in the EI program, we use the word parental benefits, which are inclusive, whether you are the mother, the father, adoptive, birth parents, it’s all under parental. The other thing, too, I’m often asked is if parents have to take the whole time, the maximum? The answer is no, you can take as many weeks as you wish. Aside from the maximum per person, you don’t have to take all 5 of the extra weeks or all 8 of the extra weeks if you are the second parent, the flexibility is up to the parent to choose.

Nora: So, if I want to go back to work after 6 months, and don’t take all the benefits that I’m eligible for, do I get extra pay in the months that I’m taking off?

Rutha: No, those weeks would remain on the table, but if circumstances change, you could reopen your claim, or your partner could access those weeks.

Nora: No more than one parent can access more than 35 weeks total, correct?

Andrew: Correct.

Nora: So, if I’m a birth mother, I get 15 weeks of maternity plus up to 35 weeks and then the second parent can access the additional 5 weeks, true?

Rutha: True for standard parental leave.

Nora: …and for adoptive parents? Parent one could access the 15 weeks, and then parent two could access 25 weeks?

Andrew: That’s correct.

Nora: Got it. Okay, it’s very complicated, and I can see why so many people signed up for the webinar today! So, what about a family? If you add all those weeks together, is there a family maximum?

Andrew: So, you’re speaking about a parental benefit, so that’s the 69 in the case of extended or the 40 in the case of standard parental benefits, and then with those individual maximums, but that’s then separate from maternity if somebody is also eligible for those. But again, there are situations in which people may be able to combine benefits should something happen, for example, the need to provide critical care, but I think really in terms of understanding the new measure, it’s that there are 40 weeks available for the family, and 35 for each individual parent, or I should say with no more than 35 for an individual parent.

Nora: Okay, so we have a question in from one of the participants, “Can you clarify the language between additional or extra weeks within the parental shared benefit? So, has the eligibility window become extended as well? For example, within the current slide, maternity is 15 weeks and plus the 35 equals 50 weeks. Is the additional 5 weeks on top of that? Does it have to be used within the window of 52 weeks?”

Andrew: The answer is yes, it does need to be used within that window of 52 weeks, and so, of course, those 5 weeks are available to another parent. So that other parent, let’s imagine it’s the father, could decide to take it at the same time as the mother, or after the mother – it will be up to them to choose. It is a 52-week period from the time of the birth to receiving the end of the parental benefits. That window may be a little bit larger in practice if the mother has started maternity benefits before the birth, so just saying that in some cases it will be possible to take them consecutively, in other cases, families may need to take some of the benefits at the same time to receive all of them.

Nora: In order to fit the window. Okay, so just to be clear, we have a couple of questions here around the difference between a benefit and a leave. Rutha, can you explain the difference between maternity and parental leaves, and the maternity and shared parental benefits?

Rutha: That is a great question, I’m really happy to be able to clarify this. Andrew and I both work in the EI program, so when we talk about the EI benefits, the maternity and parental benefits, or even paternity benefits, those are about the paid components, so that’s when you receive a pay.

Leaves are the job-protected leaves that you see under the Canada Labour Code, or the provincial/territorial labour codes, in collective bargaining agreements and in contracts. That is about how much time you can take off. For many people, they would qualify for EI to receive the maternity parental benefits, as well as qualify for a job-protected leave. There are some people who maybe don’t qualify for EI, and we’ll talk about that in a minute, who are just looking to take an unpaid leave, they could do so. So, you could receive a leave without any of the benefits paid, you could see benefits without a job-protected leave. That may happen for some people. It really depends on what you need to qualify for the job-protected leave.

Looking across the different labour codes, they have different advance notice requirements or job tenure and other requirements. So, it really depends on looking at the jurisdiction that you fall under as an employer and as an employee.

Nora: Okay, so let’s spend a little bit of time talking about that eligibility. Can you write down that eligibility for us a little bit, maybe Andrew? Can you help us sort of understand how one becomes eligible for the EI benefits?

Andrew: In order to be eligible for the EI special benefits, so of course the maternity/parental included that we’ve been spending a lot of time talking about, there’s a standard requirement across the country that you need to have 600 hours of insurable employment essentially over the last year preceding the claim, so that’s not something that has changed with the introduction of the parental sharing benefit. It’s the same as it was before, to access maternity, parental and the other special benefits.

For self-employed workers, there are some who have opted into the program. You can see there’s a requirement of just over $7,000 in net earnings in 2018 to make a claim in 2019. That also is as it was before. The requirements to be eligible for Employment Insurance special benefits are the same as before. Parents can then claim parental benefits as you see there at the same time, or one after another.

I thought about my last response and maybe trying to clarify that a little bit more. So, essentially what it is, it’s standard parental benefits – they can be taken in a 1-year period, essentially the 52 weeks from the time of birth to 52 weeks out. For the parental sharing benefit, there’s 40 weeks available on the table. They need to be taken in that 52-week period, and then the limitation is only that no parent can take more than 35 of those 40 weeks. But within that 52-week period, they can figure out the timing themselves in terms of when they would access the 40 weeks.

Nora: So if I’m a birth mother, and I gave birth on January 1, and I am receiving maternity benefits, and my partner chooses to participate in the shared parental benefit, they can start their leave on January 2, and they can be off for as many weeks as they are going to take within our allotment of weeks as a family?

Andrew: That’s absolutely right. The one limitation on the parental benefit is that you can only access them after the child has arrived.

Nora: Right… so if I’ve started my maternity leave on December 20, and I’m receiving those benefits, and I give birth January 1, my partner can only start taking the benefits as of January 1 or 2.

Andrew: First or second.

Nora: Right, I don’t want to get too far in the weeds here, but – just to be clear, now the second parent, say they want to take 3 weeks or 4 weeks when the baby is born, because there’s nobody else to provide help to the new mom. Can they then take additional weeks after mom goes back to work at the end of her parental leave?

Andrew: They do not need to be taken all at once, and so I think the one thing to mention here is that it will be important for that worker to also be thinking about their employer and just be able to provide adequate notice in terms of any leave. But from our perspective, we can pay the benefits at different times during that 52-week period. That includes breaking it into two pieces, as you have described.

Rutha: Just to add to that, it’s important again for that parent to contact Service Canada, so that they are paid in the right weeks when they are on a claim versus the weeks when they’ve returned to work, otherwise it could result in a reduction of their EI benefits if they are receiving a salary at the same time.

Nora: Okay, so if I get this right, then the standard benefits must be paid out during the 12-month period. So I give birth on January 1, I have to be totally paid out if my partner and I have chosen the standard plan – they all have to be paid out no later than December 31?

Andrew: That’s correct.

Nora: And if we both opt for the extended benefit, then it’s till June 30 in the following year?

Andrew: That’s correct as well.

Nora: Got it. Okay, so now we’ve sort of understood the complexities around standard and extended, and we know that parents can take it at the same time or one after another, can we just – is there anything else about the shared benefit that you think people need to understand that we haven’t been able to talk about, before we start talking about caregiver benefit?

Rutha: I think I’ll just repeat, just in case, the parental sharing benefit, it’s not a separate or different kind of benefit, it’s just additional weeks within the existing allotment. We do get that question from HR professionals or others; it’s coded as parental benefits or when a claimant goes online to apply – and within parental, it’s standard or extended.

Nora: We have two questions from the group here, one of them is: do employers have rights in terms of coming back between pregnancies or leaves? So, I’ve just been off from January 1 to December 31, and then I go back to work. When can I take my next maternity leave?

Andrew: I just wanted to check with that and make sure that I understand the question because there’s the maternity leave or there’s the parental. In terms of the example you had given earlier – this is one of the reasons why I said it would be important to speak with the employer and it will be important for the worker also to be clear on what would be the terms of the relevant labour standards or collective agreement – it does vary. It’s not standard in the same way, so I don’t have maternity benefits if that was the intent, in that case with another new child, and so from the EI perspective, what would be important is to qualify for additional maternity benefits. You will have to have worked enough to have 600 hours of insurable employment again to earn the maternity benefit. That’s how the Employment Insurance side would work.

Nora: If I’m working full-time, it is technically possible, biologically speaking, to return to work after 18 months, squeeze in 600 hours and go on another leave right after I reach 601 hours?

Andrew: That’s absolutely correct, so if you took – it varies, but let’s say that full-time is somewhere between 30–35 hours a week, I’ll take 30 for this example, then 600 hours would be about 20 weeks. So, you would probably need to work about 20 weeks full-time to be able to apply for another set of maternity and parental benefits.

Nora: Okay, so roughly 5 months or so, okay. Just to clarify again, when you talk about program eligibility across the country, it’s outside of Quebec.

Andrew: That’s correct.

Nora: Quebec has their own benefits and their own leaves and their own legislation.

Andrew: Absolutely correct.

Nora: One question that a participant is asking is: in Sweden, you can receive parental benefits and you can stretch it until the child is 8; is there any interest in Canada looking at those kinds of flexibilities?

Andrew: I would say that’s not something that’s on our radar right now. We are continuing to scan and see what other countries are doing, but I think we see that the change from the 12-month to 18-month period was very significant. We’re still analyzing, monitoring, trying to see what the impacts are and what will happen. The emphasis with this measure was not for any employee to be out for a long period of time, but rather to encourage another parent to take some time as well.

Nora: Do you have any data yet on how many people are actually opting for the 18 months versus the standard benefit?

Andrew: We do. We’ve seen that, nationally, roughly 16% to 17%, or one in six families, are choosing to take the extended duration option. And the other thing I can say is just that some very early data seems to show that across income distribution, it’s fairly similar. We don’t see a lot of change.

Nora: So, if I’m an employer, I can estimate roughly 15% to 20% of my workforce, if it’s representative of the national average, may opt for the extended benefit period.

Andrew: Yeah, that’s what we’re seeing in terms of the preliminary data.

Nora: Got it, so of the participants on the call, we have a diversity in not just the kind of workplaces, but the workforce itself. About three-quarters of the people on the call have employees who are women, more than 40% of their employee population are women, but we have 5% of the people on the call, where they have less than 40% women, which means they have a majority of men in the workplace. Are they the ones who are going to see the most change with this, do you think? Or is it across all workplaces that you’re going to see possible change with these new benefits?

Rutha: We’re hoping to see as many fathers or second parents as possible take up the benefits, because again the point is to provide those additional “use it or lose it” weeks to fathers in particular who were not taking up the benefit at the same rate as fathers in Quebec, for example. In EI, what we’ve been seeing is fathers generally represent about 15% of all parental claims and we are hoping that will go up with time.

Nora: Do you think it makes a difference if the HR manager or your immediate manager has themselves been on a leave? Does it make it a little bit easier? We have about only 43% of the participants in this webinar who have taken some kind of parental or caregiving benefit. Is it easier once you’ve been on it yourself, do you think?

Rutha: Well, we’re hearing that role modelling is a really important factor in contributing to men’s taking a parental leave. Once people have taken it themselves and share their story with others, it normalizes it, it socializes it so absolutely that’s the best practice, and again we encourage fathers, all parents, to take parental leave if they are eligible, because it’s not just about them and their child, but it’s also important for early childhood development.

Nora: Great, thank you – so we’re going to shift, for a few minutes, the conversation around to caregiving benefits. This is something that we’re getting lots of questions about. We know that a lot of care is provided in critical health care situations by family members, and we know that there’s a big difference by gender about the kind of care that’s being provided in a family situation. Women kind of tend to take on more of the responsibility that you can’t schedule, or you can’t schedule your work around. Things like bathing and feeding and clothing and dealing with some of the physical care, whereas men tend to provide the kind of care that you can schedule. They’ll work around the house, work maybe finances or maybe managing care that they can manage outside of regular hours.

When we think about caregiver and caregiver benefits, the legislation or the program defines a caregiver as a family member, or someone who is considered to be like family, providing support to someone who is critically ill, injured or needing end-of-life care, true?

Rutha: Yes, that’s right, and what you’ve highlighted here, Nora, is that for EI purposes, our benefits are targeted at these exceptional and difficult circumstances, so critical illness or injury in a family or that end-of-life care.

Nora: So, if my mother broke a hip and has been discharged from hospital, I wouldn’t be eligible for the caregiver benefit because it’s just basic recovery from surgery, so she’s neither critically ill nor needing end-of-life care, true?

Rutha: True.

Nora: So, if she’s discharged from hospital and acquires an infection that makes her now critically ill, then I would qualify for the benefit.

Rutha: Yes, provided that her medical practitioner, whether her medical doctor, nurse practitioner or specialist, signs the medical form that meets the definition.

Nora: Got it. So, when we talk about the caregiver benefit, there are three types of benefits. Can you just sort of walk us through those three types of benefits?

Rutha: Sure, so before I start, just to emphasize, these are available across Canada, including Quebec. We have three EI caregiver benefits, the first is if you care for a child – the family caregiver benefit – which is to facilitate caring for a critically ill or injured child for up to 35 weeks. There’s also the family caregiver benefit for those providing care to a critically ill or injured adult, which offers up to 15 weeks. Finally, there’s a compassionate care benefit for end-of-life care, of up to 26 weeks.

All three of these benefits can be shared among eligible family members, and when we say “family,” it’s broadly defined, so immediate family, extended family and really close friends who are EI eligible you consider to be like family.

Nora: So, if I have a sibling who is 45 years of age, who is in a critical illness or at end of life, that would fall under care for an adult or end-of-life care.

Rutha: It will depend on their health circumstances; it could be either.

Nora: If I take an EI caregiver benefit to care for my adult sibling who has a disability, and I use up all the 15 weeks and, at that point, the medical team says, “We need to prepare for palliative care and we’re approaching end of life,” can I then move to end-of-life care, and take my 15 plus 26 weeks?

Rutha: Yeah, those are really difficult circumstances families face. The two benefits can be taken one after the other, provided that you meet the requirements for each. You have to apply for each type of benefit and contact Service Canada. I should add also that you have to use up all available weeks of the family caregiver benefit before you could move on to compassionate care benefits.

Nora: Okay, and just to add another layer of complexity here, you said that the EI caregiving benefit is available right across Canada, including Quebec. What if I live in Quebec but work in Ontario or vice versa, which program do I fall under?

Rutha: That’s a good and tricky question. For maternity parental benefits, it depends on your province of residence. If you live in Quebec and work in Ontario, you are eligible for Quebec parental insurance benefits. Vice versa for those who live in Ontario and work in Quebec – they’ll be paying premiums both to EI and QPIP, so will be eligible for EI parental benefits since they’re a resident of Ontario. For the caregiving benefits, it doesn’t matter, but again something to keep in mind is that you can’t take more than one benefit at a time, whether it’s EI or Quebec benefits, and our program coordinates closely with Quebec to ensure that you’re on one benefit at a time, and if you need to switch from one to the other, you do so and meet all the other requirements.

Nora: What if I move halfway through my maternity benefit?

Rutha: We hear about all kinds of circumstances. You finish off in the program you started in.

Nora: Okay, thank you. So, just going to go back to qualifications, to qualify for the caregiving benefit, Andrew, back to you. How do we qualify for this benefit?

Andrew: Okay, so it is similar to what I mentioned before, as the caregiving benefits are also similar to the special benefits, and it’s a similar qualification across all of Canada. A worker needs to have accumulated 600 hours of insurable employment in the 52 weeks before the start of the claim. The other things that we take a look at is to see that 1) they’ve actually met the hours of requirement for the eligibility, and 2) that they’ve actually reduced their earnings from work. In other words, you need to show a sense of proof that you have left your job at that point, so there we refer to earnings from work that have decreased by more than 40%.

Then, in the case of either the family caregiver benefit, being a critically ill or injured benefit or a compassionate care benefit in terms of an end-of-life situation, what we’re looking at there is that either a medical doctor or nurse practitioner has signed off on the form attesting to the fact that the person meets those criteria. It could be any kind of a condition, but we need some medical expertise evaluating the case to say that this meets either the critical illness or end-of-life criteria.

Rutha: And just to add, we also need to know how long you expect to be providing care for the family member first. You need a return to work date, even if it changes, but the medical certificate needs to have a date on it.

Nora: Which is pretty tough when you’re talking about end of life. When a baby is born, you have a pretty good idea when they are going to turn 1; you’re not so sure when you get a diagnosis that somebody is critically ill, and at risk of death, whether or not they will actually die within the time frame available. What happens if at the end of the period of time that you’ve been on a compassionate care leave and receiving end-of-life benefits, what happens if the person hasn’t in fact died?

Andrew: We simply do base it on that certificate from the doctor or nurse practitioner, so with that medical opinion that the person has less than 26 weeks to live, that’s really the entry point for the compassionate caregiving benefit, that creates the eligibility for those benefits regardless. If the person does live longer than those 26 weeks, the caregiver is still eligible for the benefits, so their benefits are safe. The challenge is in that situation that they would have run out of their benefit, so they do only have those 26 weeks, even if the person lived for a longer period of time.

Nora: And you mentioned that they are shareable, so say my sister and I are sharing the benefit, say the end-of-life benefit. We have 26 weeks between us: I take 13 weeks, and my sister takes 13 weeks. Can they be the same 13 weeks?

Andrew: Absolutely, they can be taken at the same time. They can also be taken consecutively. I would say that we’ve often seen that doctors and nurses are probably a little bit reluctant in cases to make that sort of a diagnosis, so when they do, they tend to be fairly certain. In fact, that 26 weeks may really be that the person is likely to die within a shorter period of time than that, perhaps 12–15 weeks, that sort of thing. We often see that not all 26 weeks are used, and it’s quite common to see some sharing between family members.

Nora: Great. Before we open up for questions, I just want to focus for a few minutes on employer top-up we have on the webinar today. About 52% of the organizations on the call provide some kind of top-up, a lot of diversity in the top-up, some top up just for the 1-week wait period between the time the leave begins and the time the benefits kick in. Some provide top-up for 6 weeks postpartum. Some are providing top-ups for the whole maternity benefit period and others are doing it for even longer. Can you tell us how do employer top-ups impact the benefits?

Andrew: Okay, so let’s talk about maternity and parental benefits, because those really are the ones where we most commonly see that employers will provide a top-up, and I think they see that as a benefit to help attract new employees. We have provisions under the Employment Insurance Act that allow employers to provide those top-ups, that allow the worker to receive both the top-up as well as the EI benefit, without reducing their EI benefit. Provided you are not paid, combined between EI and the top-up, more than the worker would normally receive, there’s no problem. In other words, there’s then nothing else that the worker needs to report to us and we will continue to allow the worker to receive their full EI maternity and parental benefits.

Nora: So, if I’m receiving under standard benefits, 55% of my insurable earnings, and I don’t reach the maximum, and my employer tops me up, the maximum they can top me up is 45% or up to my 100%? So, they can’t pay me any extra.

Andrew: That’s correct.

Nora: Got it. Okay, so is there anything else about employer top-ups that we need to understand from the perspective of the shared parental benefit, or an end-of-life benefit or a caregiving benefit?

Andrew: I think the main thing that I would mention here is that they tend to be a benefit that helps to attract and encourage employees, I think it’s something else that has an impact on the employee’s decision on whether to take standard or extended duration. I think it’s something that’s also important for employers to think about in terms of the sorts of top-ups that they provide, whether it is the same regardless of the choice, or whether they are tailored to the standard and extended choices.

Nora: Great. So, we’ve heard a lot of language around benefits and leave, we’ve heard a lot about nuances and diversity, we’ve heard about the complexity of benefits and leaves, inside of Quebec and outside of Quebec.

Are there any questions that anybody on the call would like to ask at this time?

One question: There’s a lot of conversation about gender equality, but the language is binary. Are there plans to update the language?

Andrew: This has been changed in the options when people qualify for parental benefits. They no longer have to select in terms of a binary, between male and female, and have another choice as well. This is an area where we continue to work on being as inclusive as possible and just wanted to clarify that absolutely in terms of parents that they also have access to these benefits.

Rutha: When we get to the technical language we use in the pregnancy, we refer to the care of a child. There are no gendered words; they’re just person, or worker or self-employed person caring for family members. Family members are very broadly defined.

Nora: Great. Are there any other questions?

Here’s one: You touched on that an employee would have to return to work for 600 hours before being eligible for a second EI payout on the birth of a second child… I had an employee take an extended leave for 35 weeks and got pregnant again. How long do we have to hold her job? That’s the leave and benefits question again, so do you want to tackle the leave versus benefits question?

Rutha: Sure, so every time you make a request for a type of leave, it starts a new job-protected period, if you meet the requirements again in your collective bargaining agreement or in the province or jurisdiction that you are covered by. So, if you took a maternity parental and then you returned to work, and then you’re speaking with your employer if you intend to take a new leave, it starts a brand-new job protected period.

Nora: One of the things that we hear a lot about is the 1-year maternity leave, and so employers plan for, somebody is expecting a baby, and they assume that they’re going to be gone for a year, and backfill that position for the year, when in fact what I’m hearing you say is that may not necessarily be true and it’s going to add complexity to managers and HR professionals and practitioners, business owners or small business owners to try to find a way to either backfill those positions, because now you’re saying it may be as little as 5 weeks or 6 weeks for a second parent to be off. Are you hearing from any employers about the challenge of these shorter leaves, or do people just look at them like it’s the new way of working?

Andrew: I would say that we hear a variety of views from employers, and they have certainly noted the challenge with backfilling to deal with any kind of leave. I think one of the things that was consciously taken into account with the design was the idea that parents would need to decide at the outset between standard or parental benefits. So that gives the sense first, are we talking about should one parent take all of the time,
a 12-month block or an 18-month block, and they are not able to change that selection once they’ve started to receive some of the parental benefits, so that certainly gives the employer a better sense in advance of what sort of period they are covering for.

It’s true, though, that for a second parent now coming in, this will encourage, to a much larger degree than we’ve seen in the past, that there may be more employers affected with some, perhaps those shorter leaves of 5 weeks or so, because we don’t know yet whether it will also encourage second parents to take not just the 5 weeks, but a longer portion of the overall leave, so that will be a new dynamic for employers to manage.

Rutha: Just to add, we’re also hearing from employers and from people we know that people combine types of leaves. They are formally on a parental leave, they might tack on some of their own personal leave or vacation leave or family care leave, and that also some employers as best practice are offering extended leaves even up to 2 years, for example, for extended care and nurturing to try and retain employees, so that they can then return to work. There are minimum standards under labour codes and collective bargaining, but nothing stops employers from offering more generous leaves.

Nora: Great. So, it sounds like there’s a lot of complexity, and a lot of nuance here, it also looks like the new benefits, the new shared parental benefit and the caregiving benefit are providing supports and resources for families that employers are now trying to figure out how to best manage. So, we’ve scratched the surface on this, and I just want to take a moment to thank our panellists, Andrew Brown and Rutha Astravas from ESDC, and to thank all of you, the participants, for logging on and being a part of this webinar.

If you’d like more information about the EI program, you can go to www.canada.ca and access the Q&A there as well. Thank you all very much for coming and have a wonderful day.




1 There are 5 weeks for those who take the year-long leave or 8 weeks for those who choose the 18-month option introduced in 2018.

2 Includes adoptive parents.


Published on May 21, 2019