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June 17, 2022

Paternity Benefit Use During COVID-19: Early Findings from Quebec

Sophie Mathieu, PhD, and Marie Gendron, CEO of the Conseil de gestion de l’assurance parentale, share recent findings on paternity leave uptake during pandemic in Quebec.

June 17, 2022

Sophie Mathieu, PhD
Marie Gendron, CEO, Conseil de gestion de l’assurance parentale

COVID-19 has been extremely challenging for employed parents in Canada. As workplaces and schools closed in March 2020, many parents and their children had to quickly transition to remote work and schooling while navigating new public health measures. International and Canadian research shows that the pandemic has disproportionately affected mothers, who saw a more precarious labour market and spent more additional time than fathers caring for children and managing remote learning.

Those who were expecting children during this time were in a difficult position, as they were making complex decisions related to parental leave and benefits in this uncertain and volatile time. The province of Quebec was no exception to these trends, as seen in the data collected by .

Most research on the experiences of parents, work, and family during the pandemic has focused on those with preschool and school-aged children. Less attention has been given to the experiences of parents who welcomed a new child during lockdown, who had to make difficult choices related to parental benefits that would affect their family’s finances.

This is something I explored in a study as part of Reimagining Care/Work Policies, a project led by Dr. Andrea Doucet, PhD, and funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), as part of the Parenting Leave Research Cluster.

Understanding families’ use of parental leave is important to evaluating the effectiveness of these programs, which are designed to support families and work, and facilitate gender equality within families – something that has taken on a new importance in the context of the pandemic.

COVID-19 added uncertainty to difficult parental leave decisions

One of the things our study examined was the uptake of paternity benefits, focusing on the initial “lockdown” period and the introduction of mandatory remote work starting in March 2020.

We know from research in other developed countries that fathers are more likely to take them when the system includes a specific “take-it-or-leave-it” paternity leave that is offered as an individual right (i.e., not a family right) that is not transferable to mothers. Another important factor is that the benefit levels need to be high enough to provide for their families; otherwise, there isn’t enough incentive for them to reduce their family income by accessing these benefits.

Through the Québec Parental Insurance Plan (QPIP), Quebec has a parental leave program that offers non-transferrable paternity benefits to fathers, as well as higher benefit levels than in other provinces. This provides a unique opportunity to explore the gendered impact of parental leave use during the pandemic. In particular, we wanted to see whether fathers’ use of paternity benefits changed in the early weeks of the pandemic, when many workplaces shifted to mandatory remote work.

Administrative data on the uptake of benefits from 2006 to 2020 were used in the analysis, which were provided by the Conseil de gestion de l’assurance parentale (CGAP), the organization that oversees QPIP.

Uptake of parental benefits in 2020 rose for moms, fell for dads

Three main trends were observed, which are highlighted in the chart below. First, following a decade without a significant increase, there was a notable increase in the uptake of maternity benefits between 2019 and 2020, from 79.6% to 80.9% of new mothers. Because of this, we expected to also see a similar increase among fathers, but, to our surprise, their uptake rate actually declined during this period, from 72% to 70%.

Building on this, our third key observation was that after a decade of slowly converging uptake rates, the gap between the uptake among mothers and fathers widened between 2019 and 2020, from 7.6 to 10.9 percentage points. This was the first widening of this gap that we observed for the years we looked at, and the last time the gap was this large in Quebec was in 2010 – an apparent step backwards in this measure of gender equality within families.

Drop in paternity benefit uptake mostly during lockdown period

We are not sure yet what led to these shifts seen in the early months of the pandemic. One possible explanation may have to do with the fact that mothers start taking their maternity benefits when their child is born (or up to 5 weeks before the birth), while fathers can take their benefits at a later time. In the pandemic’s early weeks and months, many fathers may have decided not to access their benefits because it meant a reduction in their family’s income during this period of anxiety and high uncertainty. The result was that there was a decreased participation in the uptake of paternity benefits.

To get a clearer picture, we looked more closely at the uptake of paternity leave on a month-by-month basis (see chart below), to see if this shift that took place in 2019–2020 happened throughout the year or if it was concentrated in the initial lockdown period.

The data clearly indicated that this drop took place largely during lockdown from February to July, supporting the notion that the economic vulnerability caused by the pandemic may have pressured fathers to limit risk and the loss of their family income by staying in the labour market.

This is an important finding, but naturally it leaves us with more questions about the dynamics of this decision-making within families and what, ultimately, is shaping parents’ decisions on whether to utilize paternity benefits.

A look at the future that gives way to new questions

The context in Quebec is changing for parents, with incentives recently having been added through legislation to encourage and facilitate the sharing of parental benefits. Couples who share parental benefits are now entitled to additional weeks of benefits. These additional benefits provide 55% of income under the Basic Plan and 75% under the Special Plan. QPIP, unlike other options, is meant to replace workers’ income. Therefore, it does not come with a minimum guaranteed payment. Consequently, the recent changes don’t make a difference for those who don’t have access to QPIP, under which access is dependent on economic activity and a minimum employment income of $2,000 during the qualifying period.

The findings of this study, which also explored the impact of the effects of the introduction of remote work on the duration of benefits, will be presented at the Work and Family Researchers Network (WFRN) biennial conference on June 25, 2022. In the meantime, our research will continue to explore questions on the evolving relationships between families, work, and gender, including:

  • Are fathers really involved in caregiving activities when they work from home (instead of taking paternity benefits)?
  • Are fathers who do not take paternity benefits productive at work?
  • Will the effects of the pandemic on the use of benefits continue now that many employees have returned to the office?

As this research continues, findings will be shared by Reimagining Care/Work Policies, the Vanier Institute of the Family, and the many partners and collaborators who are making this important work possible. For project news and updates, join the Reimagining Care/Work mailing list on the project website.

Sophie Mathieu, PhD, is Senior Program Specialist at the Vanier Institute of the Family.

Marie Gendron is the CEO of the Conseil de gestion de l’assurance parentale (CGAP) in Quebec.

This article is based on a presentation delivered at the Canadian Sociological Association Conference on May 20, 2022.