How does parental leave work when you run your own business?

The Federal government recently announced an expanded parental leave plan, allowing new parents to stretch their 12 months of leave benefits over an 18-month period. The plan will only apply to federally-regulated jobs, and will come into effect December 3, 2017. Although this won’t initially affect most businesses, it gives entrepreneurs something important to think about: How will expanded parental leave affect my business and how can I make it work for me?

Speaking of parental leave, how do you even navigate that for yourself as an entrepreneur?

Unless you register and pay into an EI program, Canadian business owners are not automatically entitled to parental leave. And taking 12-18 months away from work is not always feasible for people running their own company.

Your business doesn’t stop running just because you have a new baby in your life — you need to carve out the time for yourself. How you do this depends partly on what stage your business is at, says Diana Olsen, president and founder of Balzac’s Coffee Roasters. “I consider myself very privileged,” she says. “When I had my daughter, the business was mature enough that I could pick my own hours. I even moved to Niagara [Ontario] and started working part-time for a while.”

If you have a baby when your business is just starting out, it could have a much larger impact on things. You may not be able to take as much time off as you feel you need. This is especially true if your staff still needs direction and coaching. Carla de Jong is the head of production at her husband’s company, Sinking Ship Entertainment, and she was back at work two weeks after having her baby. She says she had to be. “The team didn’t really have a leader … and so they kind of did still need somebody on the ground there that was able to help out.”

Carla began to take her baby with her to work, where she and her husband would juggle parenting duties. This arrangement was unique — and it worked for them. She says, “I would say, ‘Okay, I’ve got a two o’clock meeting, so can you take the baby at two o’clock? I’ll be back at three.’”

The biggest thing for Carla? Keeping an open line of communication with her employees and warning them to expect the unexpected — and in turn, their staff was supportive and understanding. Before she gave birth, she says she told her team, “I will be coming back pretty early on to just make sure that everything is okay. But you will have to be completely flexible with me… If I have a good baby and things go well, I’ll be able to help out a bit more — I just don’t know.”

Okay, I guess I’m feeding my baby through this meeting.

That flexibility included everything from setting up makeshift playpens out of office chairs to some interesting meetings. “There were times where I would be like, ‘Okay, I guess I’m [breast]feeding my baby through this meeting,’” Carla says, laughing.

Fortunately for Diana, a single mom, it was more or less “business as usual” for Balzac’s after the arrival of her daughter. “I figure if they [her staff] need me to be there, I’m not doing a good enough job,” she explains.

As for parental leave for employees, that can also be tricky for entrepreneurs to plan around. Especially if many of your employees are relatively young, you could have multiple people at a time off on parental leave. This can require you to hire temporary replacements or to shift the absent employees’ responsibilities onto remaining employees. Additionally, if you hire temporary parental leave employees, it can be tough to see them go after growing to appreciate what they bring to your business. And if your temporary employees are replacing people for up to 18 months, as may be the case soon, this becomes even more difficult.

Another important thing to consider is that even when this new expanded leave plan becomes an option, many workers may choose not to take it. The new leave plan requires stretching 12 months of benefits into 18 months, bringing a pay of up to $543 a week down to $326 a week. Not everyone will be able to afford the time off.

For entrepreneurs like Diana, it may be difficult to replace people on parental leave, but it’s worth it. As a parent herself, she understands the need to balance life with your new addition: “We need to help people, and we will do whatever it takes.”

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