Quebec parents to be given option to spread out parental leave benefits over 2 years

The new parental leave rules would permit Quebec parents to spread out their time off, including allowing them the option of returning to work part-time.

Parents will have option of returning to work part-time or taking reduced benefits over extended period

Mary Lee, the mother of an 18-month-old, said she thinks more flexibility in parental leave is a good thing for Quebec families. (CBC)

The Couillard government has announced it plans to tweak measures in the Quebec Parental Insurance Plan, to permit new parents to use their 55 weeks of leave any way they like over a period of two years.

The new rules would allow parents to spread out their time off, giving them the option of returning to work part-time.

It would also give them the option of receiving their allotment of parental leave benefits over two years, allowing a parent to stay home for that entire period.

The measure is part of a government effort to improve work-family balance, Premier Philippe Couillard told reporters Thursday, sounding in pre-electoral campaign mode.

"We will give more time flexibility to parents," Couillard said. "We heard them, and we know that is the new Quebec they wish for."

The change in rules is not expected to result in any additional cost to the government, since there is no actual increase in the monetary value of parental leave benefits. 

Thumbs-up from parents

Parents of young children welcome the proposed change.

"I think it'll be great, because the baby gets more time to bond with both parents," said Mary Lee, a pharmacist whose daughter was born 18 months ago.

Renée Boudreau, the co-owner of Notre-Dame-de-Grâce maternity boutique Melons et Clementines and a mother of two, said she would have appreciated having such options during her parental leaves.

"I think it's a good move from the province to give that much flexibility, if they want to encourage birth rates to go up," she said.

Philippe Couillard, right, and Finance Minister Carlos Leitão, unveiled the Liberal government's plan on Feb. 1 to allow parents to spread out parental leave benefits over two years. (CBC)

Employers' concerns

The level of flexibility new parents are allotted is subject to employer approval, but at least one employers' group wants to see more details, concerned the changes could negatively affect small- and medium-sized businesses.

The Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB) says Quebec already has the best parental leave program in Canada.

"We embrace work-life balance," said Bruno Leblanc, CFIB director of provincial affairs for Quebec. "We think that we already have something that's really good without changing it right now."

Leblanc said the CFIB is worried tweaking the program could create problems for its members.

"When you're in a [business] of 10 employees, versus an enterprise with 2,000 employees, the business … is less likely to be able to provide the flexibility," he said.

Another sign of looming election

The government has also created a consultation committee on work-family-education balance, chaired by Families Minister Luc Fortin.

Couillard's announcement comes five days before the National Assembly returns to work, and eight months to the day before the provincial election on Oct. 1.

With files from CBC's Angelica Montgomery, Valeria Cori-Manocchio and Radio-Canada