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Can Quebec do more to facilitate family-work balance in times of crisis?
La Belle Province is recognized as offering the best family-work balance measures in North America. Two main programs make Quebec’s family policy exceptional: a network of low-cost childcare services and parental leave – the Quebec Parental Insurance Plan (QPIP) – with benefits that are more accessible and generous than those offered elsewhere in Canada.
However, these measures focus primarily on early childhood. QPIP parental benefits can only be used in the first 18 months after a child’s arrival, and affordable year-round childcare services cease to be available when a child starts kindergarten.
Yet the need for family-work balance doesn’t disappear when a child turns four or five. With schools closed since Quebec strikes in the public sector began Nov. 21, tens of thousands of parents once again find themselves in a difficult situation.
From this point of view, Quebec’s family policy is short-sighted: it offers only a narrow vision of family support, limited to the needs of parents of preschool-age children.
It takes a village
It is said that it takes a village to raise a child. This village obviously includes parents – despite frequent inequality between the involvement of mothers and fathers – but also the whole community. In Quebec, the family policy that has been in place since the late 1990s encourages collective responsibility for childcare services and a process of “demotherization,” by transferring some of the care work from mothers to fathers and childcare services.
The use of paternity benefits and childcare services calls into question the traditional division of child-related tasks, as well as encouraging greater symmetry in the career paths of mothers and fathers. The “motherhood penalty,” i.e. the loss of income caused by the arrival of a child, is less significant in Quebec than elsewhere in Canada.
In times of crisis, however, the village shrinks and equality gains erode. Help from grandparents or other family members is not always available. The few childcare services that remain open are prohibitively expensive. Fathers tend to make less use of paternity benefits, as was the case during the pandemic, presumably to avoid income reduction.
While the first few days of the strike led some commentators to draw a parallel between the strike and spring break, the parallel does not hold as the crisis extends into several weeks. Some parents have to make the difficult choice between dipping into vacation days or trying to reconcile irreconcilable responsibilities. And mothers, more than fathers, are likely to pay the price.
A collective responsibility
In Canada, as elsewhere, it was mothers more than fathers who changed their schedules and reduced their working hours when schools closed in 2020. In Quebec, an analysis of data collected by the Réseau pour un Québec Famille also showed mothers struggled to reconcile family and work more than fathers.
There is nothing to suggest that the situation will be any different with schools closed because of a strike.
Of course, there have been many calls for employers to show flexibility and understanding. The support of employers is a critical element in reducing the stress associated with the difficulties of reconciling family and work. The widespread introduction of remote work in 2020 has also made it much easier to continue working while taking care of the family.
However, teleworking is not a panacea, especially with young children at home. It also has the pernicious effect of making family tasks virtually invisible, as if it were normal, even easy, to work while looking after young children.
This is the irony of the current conflict. On the one hand, teachers, school educators, nurses and care assistants are fighting for better recognition of the value of their work, which allows our economy to function. It is these workers – predominantly women – who makes it possible to socialize, educate and care for the next generation of taxpayers – as well as previous ones. On the other hand, the possibility for many parents to telework, even with children at home, tends to push child-related tasks deeper into the shadows.
How can Quebec help to maintain the fragile gains made in equality between women and men when schools are closed but children are not yet independent? The question was already being asked before the pandemic, during the spring break and the nine-week school holiday in the summer. The health crisis, and now the strikes, show that occasional school closures are no longer a phenomenon to be ignored. At least, certainly not in Quebec, where 72.5 per cent of mothers with partners and at least one child aged 12 and under have a full-time job.
Drawing on best practices
Recent improvements to the QPIP allow parents to switch back and forth between the labour market and time spent at home. Since 2021, weeks of benefits can be used within a period of 18 months following the birth of the child, rather than 12 months as previously.
However, when the child reaches the age of 18 months, unused benefits are simply lost. The Swedish model of parental benefits offers innovative solutions, enabling responsibility for childcare to be shared collectively beyond 18 months, and even after the child starts school.
In Sweden, parental benefits total 240 days per parent (for a combined 480 days for couples), of which 384 days must be used before the child’s fourth birthday. The unique feature of Swedish benefits is that the remaining 96 days can be kept and used until the child reaches the age of 12. Parents who so wish can therefore bank these days and use them in the event of an emergency.
Quebec could draw inspiration from such an approach, even if it entails certain risks, the most important of which is that of mothers overusing banked leave to the detriment of fathers. But Quebec fathers have already shown they respond positively to incentives that encourage their involvement in the use of parental benefits.
It is said that every crisis offers opportunity. The provincial government could take advantage of the latest crisis to improve parental leave and Quebec at the vanguard of family policy on the continent.