EI maternity leave unpopular among self-employed, 5 years on

It started as a 2008 Tory election promise, during Stephen Harper's "blue sweater vest" campaign to woo female voters. But five years on, only a small fraction of self-employed parents are taking maternity leave under the employment insurance system.

Officials thought up to half a million would opt in to employment insurance, but just 14,000 did

Stephen Harper met 14-month-old Eric Huang during a photo call at his home in Richmond, B.C., part of a 2008 pitch targeted at families with small children, including the growing number of Canadians who were self-employed and ineligible for the maternity and parental leave available to salaried employees. (Tom Hanson/Canadian Press)

Only a fraction of self-employed Canadians are taking advantage of the Harper government's 2010 offer of employment insurance benefits, according to figures published this spring by Employment and Social Development Canada.

EI's special benefits, including maternity leave, were previously only available to salaried employees. In 2009, then Human Resources Minister Diane Finley predicted between 300,000-500,000 self-employed workers would sign up within three years.

In fact, the number paying EI premiums as of March 31, 2014, was only 14,394. That's less than three per cent of the Harper government's rosy, pre-rollout projection.

As the program matured, the department expected to process as many as 55,000 claims a year by 2014. In fact, only a few hundred claims have been processed each year, including 755 in 2013-14.

That year, self-employed individuals received a total of $8.2 million in benefits, of which $7.9 million were maternity or parental benefits. (Leaves for sickness and compassionate care are also available.)

Statistics Canada reports about 2.7 million Canadian workers are self-employed. More than a third, or nearly one million, are women.

Not all of those women are of child-bearing age or want to start families. But among those who do, it appears most say "no, thanks" to EI's maternity leave. 

Is it worth it?

The EI extension dates back to Stephen Harper's "blue sweater vest" campaign in 2008, when Tories were courting female voters. 

Stroller-pushing and baby-kissing photos were part of a family-friendly image the Conservatives marketed during the 2008 campaign. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)
Campaign brochures showed the prime minister pushing a stroller and nuzzling a cute tot in pigtails. 

Small-business owners had told his party it wasn't fair only salaried employees got maternity benefits. Harper spoke of self-employed workers being "able to pursue their dreams, both as entrepreneurs and as parents." 

As a bonus, the baby-kissing promise was cheap to keep: EI premiums pay for EI benefits.

But what eventually rolled out in 2010 didn't match what was said on the hustings about the amount of time required to qualify: six months. Today, 12 months of paying premiums is required — ruling out unplanned pregnancies.

From the start, accountants warned families to do the math to see if they'd really benefit.

The benefits calculation is based on the parent's income: current payments are 55 per cent of average weekly earnings, up to a maximum of $524 a week for those making $49,500 or more a year.

But in 2012, Statistics Canada reported that 90 per cent of women claiming self-employment income made less than $30,000 a year, meaning few could receive that much. 

And after the leave, recipients keep paying premiums for as long as they're self-employed. 

They'll stand up and pat themselves on the back until they separate their shoulder, but that doesn't make it any better than what the numbers show.- Liberal MP Rodger Cuzner

A modest weekly benefit for a few months early in one's career could cost thousands of dollars in premiums later as a business takes off. 

A 2011 departmental survey suggested only 25 per cent of self-employed workers knew benefits were available.

Donna Lero, who holds the Jarislowsky Chair in Families and Work at the University of Guelph, said there's been little marketing of the program. 

"The two-week waiting period and the level of benefits paid may be insufficient to motivate enrolment and use of the benefits as an alternative to using one's own savings," she wrote in an email to CBC News.

'Out of touch'

Reva Seth's accountant advised against signing up when she expanded her family.

The author recently interviewed over 500 women for The MomShift, a book about balancing career success and motherhood. More than a third of her subjects were self-employed.

"I don't know a single woman that I interviewed who used it," she said.
Eighteen-month-old Sydney McCormick crawled past Conservative Leader Stephen Harper as he answered questions at an Ottawa daycare during a 2008 election stop. Five years after self-employed parents could start signing up for employment insurance benefits, less than three per cent have opted in. (Tom Hanson/Canadian Press)

"The whole thing just sounds like so much paperwork for very little money. It doesn't reflect how a business actually runs." She explained that women entrepreneurs often can't fully step away, yet any income generated means clawed-back benefits. 

Her husband ran for the Liberals in the 2011 election but is not a candidate this time.

"I think the whole thing was just quickly put together to look like it's a carrot for working moms... But it actually shows how they're fairly out of touch," she said.

"Were the actual people who they wanted to help consulted?" she wondered. "My guess is no, because they would have said none of this reflects how I run my business or live my life."

In fact, an expert panel promised in the 2009 federal budget was never created.

Good PR, bad policy?

New Democrat Robert Chisholm says a future NDP government would overhaul EI. He's not surprised this extension of it was a bit of a bust, numbers-wise.

"Without it being tailored, I can't imagine how it could have been effective," he said. "Round pegs don't fit into square holes."

He's also skeptical another recent expansion to allow for compassionate care leave will work. Too few people qualify for EI.

Liberals initially thought the idea made sense. But critic Rodger Cuzner said Service Canada's poor delivery of EI frustrates businesspeople with little tolerance for call centre waits and processing delays.

Conservatives wanted the opportunity to say they're helping female entrepreneurs, he said. "They'll stand up and pat themselves on the back until they separate their shoulder, but that doesn't make it any better than what the numbers show."

CBC News sent Employment Minister Pierre Poilievre's office questions seeking reaction to the numbers.

"The program provides self‑employed Canadians with choice," wrote departmental spokeswoman Marie-France Faucher. "The department continues to assess the program."