The Conservatives announced on Wednesday they would match a Liberal party pledge to extend parental leave to 18 months. But, what does it really mean for mothers, fathers and the businesses who employ them? 

Marina Adshade, a professor in UBC's School of Economics and Jeff Robinson from Kelowna's Chamber of Commerce, broke down the policies in an interview on CBC Radio's Daybreak South.

At first glance, the UBC professor noted the policies appear to be a positive step by offering parents job security beyond the current maximum of 50 weeks for parental leave, but she points out the newly promised benefits would only stretch that bit of pay to 61 weeks.

"The extended parental leave appeals to people because it sounds like they're getting something they weren't getting before ... but really, these programs are costless to the government," said Adshade. "They're not offering more money."

That's where some of the drawbacks begin.

From an employer's perspective, Robinson believes the policy would be particularly tough on small businesses because of the challenges with replacing and reintegrating parents coming back from leave.

Adshade also said it's unlikely women, who make a lower income, will be able to take advantage of the added leave.

"If your benefit is $200 a week, I don't see you spreading it out over that 18-month period."

Justin Trudeau 20140804

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau has promised more flexibility for parents who choose to return to work mid-way through parental leave. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

For parents who earn a higher income, which Adshade estimates at $80,000 a year, she doesn't foresee them extending their leave either, since benefits would be capped at around $350 a week.

"There's this narrow range of women in the middle who might see it as being worthwhile. It's looking like we're moving towards a Nordic model where families are being supported more when their children are young, but I don't really think that's the case," said Adshade.

Where the parties diverge

There are two key differences between the Conservative and Liberal parties' promises. 

The first applies to self-employed parents: the Conservatives will allow them to supplement benefits with self-employment income up to $50,800 annually — the maximum weekly EI insurable earnings threshold.

The second difference is the Liberal party's promise that parents will be allowed to go back to work during their parental leave for a bit and then finish the remainder of the 18 months at a later date.

Robinson felt the more flexible leave policies might lead to "happier" employees and Adshade agreed it could facilitate a "smoother transition" back to work.

She does warn, though, research from countries with longer maternity leave has shown women become more separated from the workforce, have more difficulty reintegrating and are more likely to become part-time workers instead.

"There's a real cost to them in their long-time careers in terms of their lifetime income. The year you take off now, the 18 months ... affects your earning over the rest of your work life."


To hear the full interview listen to the audio labelled What an 18 month parental leave policy really means with the CBC's Chris Walker on Daybreak South.