Northern Exposure

Canadian government enhances maternity leave benefits, proposes to strengthen harassment and violence prevention

by Clayton Jones

On November 9, the federal government announced that changes to the Employment Insurance (EI) program relating to parental, maternity, and caregiving benefits will come into effect on December 3. The EI program provides temporary income support to partially replace lost employment income to individuals who are off work for various reasons.

On November 7, the federal government announced legislation to amend the Canada Labour Code, the Parliamentary Employment and Staff Relations Act, and the Budget Implementation Act, 2017. Bill C-65 would strengthen existing laws on the prevention of harassment and violence in federally regulated workplaces.

Changes to EI benefits

The federal government’s changes to the rules around maternity, parental, and caregiving benefits, which were first announced in the 2017 federal budget, involve three things.

First, the period during which EI maternity benefits are payable to a birth mother will now be extended to start 12 weeks before her due date. EI maternity benefits are currently payable during the period starting eight weeks prior to the employee’s due date and ending 17 weeks after the birth of the child, for a maximum of 15 weeks. The total number of weeks of EI maternity benefits payable remains capped at 15 weeks.

Second, parents will have the option of choosing to receive EI parental benefits at the lower benefit rate of 33 percent of average weekly earnings for up to 61 weeks (i.e. over an additional 26-week period), or to receive parental EI benefits at the current rate of 55 percent of average weekly earnings over the existing 35-week period.

Parental benefits are offered per family and may be shared–they can be taken at the same time or separately. It should also be mentioned that amendments to the Canada Labour Code will come into effect on December 3, extending the maximum protected parental leave period to 63 weeks to coincide with the new EI parental benefit period.

Third, a new family caregiving benefit, which will allow eligible employees to receive up to 15 weeks of EI benefits in a 52-week period, will apply to those providing care or support to an adult family member who is critically ill. To qualify, the family member’s life must be at risk as a result of illness or injury and the family member must have experienced a significant change in baseline state of health.

Prevention of harassment and violence

Bill C-65 would not only enact stronger protections against harassment and violence in federally regulated workplaces; parliamentary workplaces, including the House of Commons, would also be covered by these protections. The federal government has also indicated that the reference to harassment and violence is intended to cover everything from workplace bullying to sexual harassment to physical or sexual violence.

Pursuant to the legislation, employers would be required to take steps to prevent and protect employees against harassment and violence in the workplace, respond to incidents when they occur, and offer support to affected employees.

The legislation would also provide employees with a choice of an informal resolution process or neutral third-party investigation. At the same time, the legislation does not currently contain penalties where a complaint of harassment or violence is substantiated. This is left up to the employer to decide.

Implication for employers

The new EI benefit periods are expected to affect federally regulated employers the most. Federally regulated employers are going to want to take a look at their existing leave policies and any collective bargaining agreements to ensure that they are consistent with the changes being made in terms of leave periods. They are also going to want to consider the effect of the increased leave periods on any top-up of EI benefits they provide and make any necessary changes.

With regards to parental leave, while federally regulated employees will have job protection corresponding with the new EI parental benefit period, employees who work for provincially regulated employers will not be entitled to leave periods that correspond to the new EI parental benefit period unless provincial employment standards legislation is amended similar to the changes made to the Canada Labour Code.

Bill C-65 is currently in First Reading in the House of Commons. As a result, it will likely be some time before its true impact for federally regulated employers is known.

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