Researchers unite to explore family leave nationwide

An interdisciplinary team of researchers have joined forces for a first-time look at family-leave policies across the country in an effort to create more consistent and equitable systems for all Canadian families with children.

“We already have separate people working on and advocating for separate family/work innovations – working together makes those efforts stronger,” said Sociology professor Rachel Margolis, who serves as a co-investigator on the project.

Led by Brock University professor Andrea Doucet, the seven-year partnership recently received a $2.5-million grant from Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC).

Over the years, several groups have called for a national family strategy that encompasses parental leave, childcare practices and workplace policies. But researchers have often studied each separately and in distinct disciplines with little funding to stitch them together to form big-picture policy.

This project marks the first time Canadian researchers have come together in a large-scale, integrated interdisciplinary research approach to examine family policies and their impacts on Canadians – and then recommend new national, provincial and territorial approaches based on their findings.

Disparities in equity and access have been particularly stark in parental benefits after the birth or adoption of a child, Margolis said.

“There’s all this public narrative that we have a year of benefits and that it’s fairly consistent across the country,” she said.

But there are stark differences in uptake among demographic groups, between lone-parent households and two-parent families, for example. There are also differences from province to province in eligibility and benefits, depending on whether a person draws wages or is self-employed, works full- or part-time, or works at one or several jobs.

In Quebec, where parental income replacement is 75 per cent of income, women draw on these benefits about 90 per cent of the time after giving birth. Elsewhere in Canada, the percentage of benefits and uptake is far lower.

New parents in Alberta, for example, draw on parental benefits less often than in Ontario, partly because of a combination of different eligibility/qualification rules and different labour participation by women.

These differences and other disparities across the country disproportionately affect low-income families, Indigenous Peoples and lone-parent households.

As one of 58 researchers working at 34 research partner institutions and agencies in four countries, Margolis will delve more deeply into those disparities, find out why they exist, examine what policies work best and propose policies to remedy the inequities.

She will examine large data sets available through Statistics Canada to see where, when and why Canadians use parental benefits differently. Additional data from anonymized tax information and generated through employment-insurance coverage surveys will round out the research.

The study partnership encompasses far more than parental benefits. It is intended to address systemic disparities and gaps in support for families: gender inequalities in childcare work at home; paid work and pay equity; unequal access to affordable, quality childcare; unequal access to parental leave benefit and supportive employment policies; and the impact of precarious labour on families.

The team will draw together research that usually takes place separately from academics, civic organizations, unions and public and private sectors at all levels of government.

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