Conservatives match Liberal pledge to extend parental leave to 18 months

Stephen Harper made an election pitch straight at young families Wednesday, proposing to extend maternity and parental leave benefits to 18 months and match the time frame proposed in the Liberal parental leave platform.

Fix promised for unpopular self-employed benefits, to allow parents to keep more income earned on leave

Harper matches the Liberal promise to allow parents to stretch their EI to 18 months and announces new plan to allow self employed work while on EI maternity benefits 2:58

Stephen Harper made an election pitch straight at young families Wednesday, proposing changes to the employment insurance system that would extend maternity and parental leave benefits to 18 months, up from the one-year program now offered.

In addition to changing the federal Labour Code provisions that protect parents' jobs while they're away, Conservatives propose lengthening the amount of time new parents are eligible to receive benefits.

For those who are self-employed or just need to return to work earlier, pilot programs could allow new parents to combine work and time off for child care without their benefits being reduced.

In August, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau unveiled a Liberal plan to reform parental leave that would allow new parents to access benefits in portions for a period of up to 18 months, making it possible to take time off, return to work and take more time off within that period.

If elected, a Liberal government would also extend employment insurance benefits for up to 18 months, at a lower benefit level.

Introducing her husband Wednesday at the Conservative campaign event in Saskatoon, Laureen Harper spoke about her experience trying to keep working after giving birth. She called this platform pledge a "game-changer" for working families.

"We want to support new parents by giving them as much choice and flexibility as possible in achieving the balance and making the career and financial decisions that are right for your family," the Conservative leader said.

"All of these commitments are designed to provide choice and flexibility for new parents," Stephen Harper said, calling them fair and affordable for the government.

The Labour Code changes would affect an estimated 17,000 federal civil servants and workers in federally regulated sectors, who could now take an extra six months of leave.

The amount of job protection afforded to other workers varies by province.

Currently, new mothers can claim 15 weeks of maternity leave under employment insurance. Then either parent can claim up to an additional 35 weeks of parental leave, adding up to 50 weeks in total benefits. 

The Conservative proposal would give parents the option of extending the parental benefits period up to a maximum of 61 weeks, stretching the benefits out at a lower rate of payment.

Earning while on leave

A new two-year pilot program would allow self-employed parents to better combine their work and family demands. The current system penalizes self-employed parents who continue to earn income from their business while on leave.

The proposal will let self-employed parents supplement their EI benefits with self-employment income. A worker receiving the maximum weekly EI parental benefit of $537 per week (55 per cent of the maximum allowable earnings for 2016) could earn another $439 per week in self-employment earnings before the EI was clawed back, up to a total of $50,800 annually. That's 100 per cent of the annual earnings threshold eligible for EI.

Conservative Leader Stephen Harper proposed changes Wednesday to the federal Labour Code and the employment insurance system that would lengthen maternity and parental leave benefits to cover up to 18 months. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

Mothers who receive maternity benefits for the first stage of their leave after childbirth would also have the option to participate in a pilot project for those wishing to work while claiming benefits. Currently, the pilot program only allows participation during the latter, parental leave portion of a mother's total time away from work.

Under the pilot scheme, parents on leave can keep 50 cents of their benefits for every dollar earned, up to 90 per cent of the weekly insurable earnings used to calculate benefits ($976). Earnings above that are deducted dollar for dollar from their benefits. Up to 34,000 women annually are expected to benefit from this change.

The changes would only be implemented if a Conservative government is re-elected on Oct. 19.

About 170,000 women claim EI benefits each year under the current system. Roughly 190,000 workers claim parental benefits. The number of men using the parental leave option has been steadily rising — currently sitting at around 30 per cent of those making claims.

Offering employment insurance benefits for self-employed parents was a 2008 election promise.

However, the program later implemented was unpopular with families. Employment and Social Development Canada commissioned a review to study how it could improve, but the findings were not made available to CBC News when requested last August.

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