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Currently, the United States offers no mandated paid maternity leave program. The only federally enforced parental leave policy is the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which entitles employees to up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave after the birth or adoption of a child. Parents’ jobs must be protected during this period. 

While some states offer more generous leave packages, such as New York’s Paid Family Leave Policy (PFL), which gives most people who work for private employers 10 weeks of partially paid leave, the U.S. differs from most other developed countries in this respect. Canada is one such country that offers a more comprehensive maternity leave and overall parental leave policy, as well as an employment insurance benefit program that provides paid leave to new parents.

What do the policy and insurance program entail, and how do they work? Who qualifies? And what else do you need to know? Read on for a complete rundown of maternity leave in Canada.

How Does Maternity Leave Work in Canada?

Canada mandates unpaid maternity leave of up to 17 weeks for all new mothers. This is a requirement, as dictated by the labour code in Canada, and mothers may begin their leave up to eight weeks before their due date.

Furthermore, employers must allow mothers to return to their jobs or an equivalent one after their leave ends. They must continue to receive the same benefits of employment when they return from their maternity leave.

Employment Insurance Parental Benefits

On top of taking advantage of the mandated leave, Canadians may elect to participate in the country’s employment insurance (EI) plan. This plan enables biological mothers who are unable to work during their pregnancy or after recently given birth to take a maximum of 15 weeks of paid maternity leave. The leave can start as early as 12 weeks before the mother’s due date and end up to 17 weeks after she gives birth.

The EI plan also entitles parents to 35 weeks of parental leave in addition to the 15 original weeks of maternity leave. Either parent may take up to 35 weeks of leave after the birth or adoption of a child, and parents may share or divide this time in any combination. The benefits payments are equivalent to 55 percent of the parents’ average weekly wages for a maximum of $562 per week. Low-income employees may receive up to 80 percent of their average weekly wages. The payments occur every two weeks.

 Insurees may apply for extended benefits for up to 61 weeks, or 69 weeks in total if the benefit is shared with other parents, though one parent may not receive more than 61 weeks of extended parental benefits. You may receive the extended benefits during the 18 months after the date of the child’s birth or adoption placement. During this time, you will receive 33 percent of your average weekly earnings for a maximum of $337 per week.

Keep in mind that specific benefits and time periods vary by province. 

How Much Is Maternity Leave in Canada?

As noted above, new (biological) mothers must receive up to 17 weeks on unpaid maternity leave. Surrogate mothers qualify for this leave as well. However, non-biological mothers and fathers do not qualify.

The total amount of leave available varies according to the parent’s province, employment status, and other factors. If you have questions, you should discuss them with your employer before taking leave. Your employer can help you understand whether you qualify and what your exact benefits will be. 

The estimates for the maximum number of weeks of maternity leave mothers may receive vary. Some report up to 63 weeks. Again, this can vary based on province. 

Who Is Eligible for Maternity Leave in Canada?

To receive the 17 weeks of unpaid leave, you must be the biological mother of your new child.

To qualify for EI, you must meet certain additional criteria. These include:

• Having your weekly earning reduced by more than 40 percent

• Having accrued 600 hours or more of insurable employment during a period of 12 months or 52 weeks before applying (this can vary)

• Being the biological, adoptive, or legal parent of the child 

You must, of course, be enrolled in the EI program to receive benefits. In many cases, you will be enrolled through your employer, and your insurance premium will be automatically deducted from your paycheck. You must also enroll in the program if you are self-employed. 

The Canadian government encourages people to apply for the benefit as soon as they stop working, because waiting can result in a delay in payments. (Learn more about applying here.) 

Can I Get Maternity Leave if I Quit My Job in Canada? 

You may be eligible for employment depending on your circumstances and employment history if you have quit your job, assuming you qualify for EI. You will need to provide information about your employment and earnings history from any job you have held within the previous 52 weeks. You should make an effort to apply for benefits while you are still working, because a delay can risk a loss in benefits. You may also qualify for EI special benefits if you are self-employed. (See below.)

Can I Receive Maternity Leave if I’m Self-Employed?

Canadian citizens and residents who own their own business or work for a corporation but cannot access EI benefits (applies to people who own greater than 40 percent of the corporation’s voting shares), as well as some self-employed people, may be eligible for EI special benefits. Some self-employed individuals do not qualify because their employment is insurable under the EI regulations or other reasons.

People who are registered under the program can receive maternity and parental benefits, as well as extended benefits, as are available to Canadian citizens and permanent residents. 

Maternity Leave in Canada: The Bottom Line

In contrast to maternity leave and parental leave in the U.S., Canada offers a more generous policy that enables a greater number of employees to take time off to give birth and bond with new children. Furthermore, the addition of employment insurance enables Canadians to receive payment during their time off. If you have questions about whether you qualify for EI or about maternity leave in general, speak with a human resources representative at your employer or consult the Government of Canada website, which can provide you with details about the programs available and other information.

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