“It’s time for Real Change”
written by Karen Trzaska
The Federal government has asserted that it is going to implement new initiatives that will assist working parents and families in better balancing work and family life. As our Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, said during his 2015 election campaign “It’s time for Real Change”. He pledged to take these issues seriously and proposed programs to benefit families and working parents.
At the beginning of the year, we set out to understand exactly what our Prime Minister has achieved and if he is delivering on his promises or if it is all just smoke and mirrors.
Immediate successes – faster Employment Insurance (EI) payments and the reintroduction of the Canada Child Benefit Program.
Work in progress – the Right to Request Flexible Work Program and the potential for a flexible, 18 month parental leave program are still a work in progress.
In for the long haul – the loftier initiative of creating a National Framework for Early Learning and Child Care will take significant blood, sweat and tears to cross the finish line and will test the PM’s commitment to address these important issues.
1. Successful Initiatives that will “help the middle class”
The Trudeau government efficiently implemented two new changes in 2016 that will positively impact families.
In the 2016 budget, it was announced that the EI waiting period would be reduced from two weeks to one week, effective January 1, 2017. Which means families struggling to meet the high costs of living will no longer be met with lengthy delays.
Changes were also made to the allocation of the Canada Child Tax Benefit (CCTB) and the Universal Child Care Benefit (UCCB). This came into effect on July 20, 2016. The program combines these benefits into one payment that is entirely income tested and also tax-free. Families with children under the age of six will receive as much as $6,400 per child per year. Families with kids between six and 17 will receive a maximum of $5,400 annually under the new plan. If your annual household income is greater than $200,000 a year you’re exempt – seems more than reasonable.
2. Sunny Ways my Friends, Sunny Ways” – Initiatives likely to succeed
For Canada to be more competitive on a global scale, we need more inclusion and diversity in the workforce. This means we need more women and better balance for working families.
The government is implementing initiatives that address flexible work arrangements and assist families in more flexible leave choices in pursuit of these objectives. So how are we doing?
Right to Request Flexible Work Arrangements
The goal of this initiative is to provide federally regulated workers the right to ask their employers for flexibility in their working arrangement. These changes would be observed through an amendment to the Canada Labour Code.
In a progress report provided by Employment and Social Development Canada, it was stated vaguely that the Ministry is continuing to move forward on implementing this right. A consultation process was completed between May and June of 2016. In September 2016 a report was released revealing that Canadians felt that the initiative on its own would not enhance flexibility for workers, but that a complementary shift in workplace culture would be necessary.
Critics of this initiative argue that the concept of flex work isn’t new, employees can do this now, and that the provisions will likely lack teeth or enforceability.
And while the scope of the imitative is limited, only about 6% of all Canadian workers are eligible, we still see this as a positive development. It signals to business leaders across Canada that the government recognizes the benefit of flexible work arrangements and that they are needed to ensure that that women are able to fully participating in the workforce.
Flexible and Inclusive Maternity and Parental Leave Options
These initiatives fall under the ambit of Canada’s Employment Insurance program and aim to introduce more flexible and inclusive supports for eligible people completing periods of unpaid leave. A consultation process took place between October 6 and November 4 of 2016 with the goal of finalizing a plan by Budget 2017.
A range of revisions are being considered including:
- Extending the maternity and parental leave period from 12 to 18 months. Recipients would not see an increase in overall benefits rather the benefits would be spread over 18 months rather than 12.
- Enabling recipients to work periodically throughout the 18 months and benefits would be received in smaller blocks throughout the leave period.
- Enabling pregnant women in dangerous/challenging jobs to take benefits15 weeks prior to birth.
- Including a dedicated paternity leave where parental leave would be shared between parents.
The idea of a dedicated paternity leave portion, “daddy-days”, being included in the leave options is stirring up much discussion. This type of program was launched in Quebec in 2006 where 5 weeks of leave were specifically allotted to fathers with a guaranteed income during this time of 70% of prior weekly earnings. It is estimated that almost 80% of fathers in Quebec access this program, versus 20% prior to implementation. The overall impact on families in the long run is limited, however, as few men take more than the allotted 5 weeks.
This type of initiative, however, still can at least push the conversation further and provide both mothers and fathers greater options. Ideally, having the majority of fathers taking parental leave would become the new normal and result in a reduction in bias and discrimination faced by fathers who value this time with their families.
Most of these flexible options, however, will only benefit those working parents and families that can already afford to take a parental leave. As well, others worry that the more time women take on maternity leave, the less likely they are to return to full-time work, so an 18-month leave would only exacerbate the issue of women exiting the workforce for family care purposes.
For those employees in highly skilled careers, some argue 18 months out of the job market may result in a reduction of necessary skills. For employers, finding flexible, temporary, staffing options to cover parental leaves may be onerous. However, if this initiative results in the retention of more women in the workforce it is valuable. We need to support women across a spectrum of income levels and education levels in retaining the employment positions they value.
3. “We can make anything happen if we put our minds to it”… but not always.
National Early Learning and Child Care Framework
In the 2016 Budget, the federal government allocated 500 million dollars to be directed towards the development of a national framework addressing childcare. The goal of the framework is to ensure a standard level of services for child care across Canada. Work on this initiative began in February of 2016 and an update by Minster Duclos of the Ministry of Families, Children and Social Development in November of 2016 noted that work is ongoing.
Childcare is typically managed by individual provinces and territories, however this initiative would see the federal government steer the ship on an issue that is seen by many as being of national concern. Many argue that childcare services should be recognized as a collective, national, social responsibility that should be protected and that without such a Framework to regulate and steer childcare initiatives we are not able to best ensure the safety and care of our nation’s children. It remains to be seen, however, whether jurisdictional issues and differences will hinder progress. The challenges associated with the need to have the provinces and territories work together and come to an agreement may override the Frameworks efficient development and implementation.
Childcare in Toronto is a headache. The cost is the highest in the country and there is a critical shortage of quality daycare in the city. There is one licensed daycare spot for every five children in Toronto. And if you are lucky enough to get one of those five spots after spending years on a waiting list, you will pay dearly for it. There is no arguing that something needs to be done, just how it is to be done.
Only time will tell whether these initiatives will be established and, if so, how effective they will be in ensuring working parents and families from all walks of life, particularly those that need it the most, benefit. Real, societal change means addressing complex cultural and systemic issues that surround families, gender roles and employment, and caregiving responsibilities. A few policy changes may result only in incremental progress, but it is progress.
These initiatives represent the Government’s recognition of the need for supports to help families be successful. They initiate a discussion that lets policy leaders, businesses, and the public know that this is a government that is open to change. Now, it is up to us to make sure that we participate, to make sure that we let the government know what Canadian families need. Get out there! In the words of Prime Minister Trudeau, “We can make anything happen if we put our minds to it.”
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About the author Karen Trzaska
I am a mother of two young boys living in urban Toronto. I have a passion for issues that touch the lives of families, in particular those affecting women and children. In a past life I was an urban planner and land development lawyer. In the future I plan on merging my family life, my interests, and my work life to do it all – easy;)!