Originally written in 2017 by software developer Anna MacKenzie and designer Ella Gorevalov, the Expecting Playbook was penned as a resource for startups and small businesses who want to understand the reasons, regulations and costs of providing a modern parental leave program in Ontario. 

Since then, much has changed. Laws and regulations have been adjusted, and more companies are openly sharing their approach to parental leave. With the added weight of the COVID-19 pandemic, parenting has been brought even more to the forefront, with family and work life blended 24/7 as parents struggle to work (and parent, and teach) from home. Women, especially, have been affected, with more leaving the workplace due to a lack of childcare and support. We have the power to change this. 

While we hope to return to most aspects of normalcy, we hope that discussions about family life, and how workplaces can support it, are ongoing. The illusion of “separate selves” has been broken, and leaves us in a position of opportunity to build something new and better. 

We extend our thanks to the authors of the original version of this playbook for letting us be stewards of its next iteration. We hope it’s something that founders, bosses and parents can use as a tool to build equitable, inclusive and conscious workplaces, for everyone.

- Team Bright + Early

Who Is This Playbook For?

This Playbook is for small-to-medium sized startups and small businesses who are developing their first parental leave policy. While the legal policies referenced in this playbook are specific to Ontario and Canada, the philosophy of supporting new parents at work can be applied to any company regardless of geographic location.

While there are many important tips for accommodating parents in the modern workplace, we've focused specifically on parental leave for this guide. Look out for future guides on family-friendly workplaces for older kids!

While this playbook was developed to provide guidance, it does not replace the need for legal advice. 

What Does the Government Provide?

Ontario has two government programs that, as a policy creator, you’ll want to understand.

ESA Leave - The Time Off

The first is the Employment Standards Act, or ESA. The Employment Standards Act, 2000 (ESA) provides eligible employees who are pregnant or are new parents with the right to take unpaid time off work. To qualify for parental or pregnancy leave under the ESA, an expecting parent needs to have started their employment at least 13 weeks before the date a baby is expected to be born.

Employment Insurance (EI)- The Pay

The second major factor in parental leave is the Government of Canada’s Employment Insurance (EI) program. This offers temporary financial assistance to unemployed workers, including pregnancy and parental benefits. The employee applies for this themselves through the government, and should check on their own to confirm if they are eligible. The payments are subject to tax, and, with some exceptions, employees taking leave must take each respective leave as one consecutive lump. They may not return to work and then go back on leave.

Pregnancy Leave (often called maternity* leave) 

  • Is available to anyone giving birth, including surrogates
  • Is up to 17 weeks long
  • Begins as early as 12 weeks before birth date, and not later than the birth date or due date (whichever comes first). Exceptions apply in cases of pregnancy loss, still birth and hospitalized babies
  • Pays EI of 55% of earnings to a max of $595 per week for up to 15 weeks 

Note: the use of the word “Maternity” in this section is reflective of the current language in use by the government of Canada for these benefits. We have tried to use more inclusive language where possible. 

Parental Leave 

Parental leave is available to new parents, including birth givers, parents of newborns and parents of newly adopted children. There are two options for Parental Leave: Standard Leave, or Extended Leave. Legally, you may receive notice as late as 2 weeks before the start of their parental leave. Note that this may be exempt for babies that arrive early. You can (nicely!) request that folks let you know sooner, but they're not obligated to do so. Parental leave begins immediately after pregnancy/maternity leave for those that took it, or within 78 weeks of the birth or adoption for those who did not take pregnancy leave.

Standard Leave

  • 55% of earnings to a max of $595 per week, per family
  • Up to 35 weeks (if only 1 parent is taking leave)
  • Two parent households who are sharing or splitting the leave may take up to 40 weeks between them
  • If sharing, 1 parent still may not take more than 35 weeks
  • If sharing, parents can take their leave at the same time or one after the other
  • Parents who choose the shorter EI option (vs extended leave payments) are not obligated to return to work after the shorter time. Their job remains protected for up to 61 weeks should they choose to stay on leave after those payments end

Extended Leave

  • 33% of earnings to a max of $357 per week, per family
  • Up to 61 weeks (if only 1 parent is taking leave)
  • Up to 69 weeks (for 2 parent families who are sharing)
  • If sharing, 1 parent still may not take more than 61 weeks
  • If sharing, parents can take their leave at the same time or one after the other

Understanding Top Ups

Wondering what you can do to be a great employer for new parents on your team? Offer a top up! Most parents who are on parental leave are living off a fraction of their salary during their time away from work. Many employers offer supplemental payments for their employees that make up all or part of the difference of their salary. This is referred to as “Top Up”. Most employers of choice in Ontario provide a top up.

The Government Pays For Leave. Why should I do more? 

The province of Ontario does offer (some) EI support for new parents. Why provide an additional top up or benefits beyond that?

Promoting Equality. Open and competitive parental policies are a tangible way to influence diversity and equity by providing all employees equal parental support and acting as a strong incentive for all parents to participate in (and return to) the workforce successfully.

Removing stress for employees who are family planning. Displaying parental policies upfront provides employees a preemptive understanding of what they can expect from their employers, translating to employees who feel supported at work. Plus, you avoid an awkward negotiation with an expecting employee, which can happen when you don’t have a policy in place.

Boosting Hiring. Sharing your policy openly during the recruiting process serves as an incentive for attracting and retaining new talent, particularly for underrepresented groups. Simply offering leave that is legally compliant, with no additional top-up or benefits, is considered below standard, especially in competitive hiring environments.

Retention. Chances are, many of your best employees will go on parental leave, or require some form of additional family support at some point in their career. Providing them with a positive, supportive experience will boost their long term engagement and commitment.

How Much Will it Cost to Top Up?

Generally, you should pay the maximum your organization can realistically afford. We've put together 5 common plans and what they'll end up costing the company to pay out.

Some hypothetical top up costs

*Note that these numbers assume a standard leave length. The gap between an employee's EI payments and their pre-leave earnings on an extended parental leave will be greater than if they were to take a standard leave. For example, topping up to a salary of $1000 weekly from an extended leave EI payment of $357 weekly would more costly than topping up the standard weekly payment of $595. Your top up policy should outline how you intend to address this. For example, you may choose to specify that you will top up what a standard, non extended leave payment would be (in this example, the $595 weekly). 

*Note that EI can take a month or more to kick in. We suggest still offering your top up during this time.

Additional Parental Policy Considerations

Below are some considerations that you can do as an employer to create a workplace that supports parents. Many of these policies do not require any change to budget, and can be implemented immediately.

Have a Parent-Friendly Environment

  • Start a parenting community like a meetup group or Slack channel at your organization where parents can share articles, ask questions, and plan events
  • Plan and explicitly state which company events are child-friendly
  • Have company leaders act as role models for taking advantage of parental policies and bringing children into the workplace, either in person or virtually
  • In a virtual workplace, welcome occasional family moments blending in, on camera or otherwise

Ideas to Support New Parents

  • Allow for flexible start and leave times for parents who may need to pick up children before or after work
  • Offer personal days to all employees; for parents these days provided much needed flexibility when kids might be sick or need to attend doctor’s appointments without requiring them to use their own sick days or vacation days. These are also helpful for employees who are not ready to announce family news but have related appointments
  • Provide remote, or part time transition options upon return from pregnancy or parental leave to help employees integrate back to work with their families
  • Arrange a thoughtful re-onboarding for returning employees to bring them back into the information fold
  • Work with parents to craft a return to work plan that works for them. Every person and family is different!
  • Dedicate a lockable, private space as a nursing/pumping room with an outlet, comfy chair, fridge, and sink
  • Consider a small gift or bonus effective after birth/adoption of a child, to support with upfront new parent expenses. Things like meal delivery and house cleaning are also appreciated perks!
  • Provide a daycare subsidy, or financial coverage for childcare when business travel is required

Health Benefits

  • Consider In-Vitro (IVF) and fertility benefits and coverage, and coverage for surrogacy options (see below)
  • Ensure you have benefits and insurance coverage for dependents and spouses

Fertility Treatment and Surrogacy

A great benefits plan will include an amount for employee fertility treatment or surrogacy options. Be vocal about your offerings and your support. Like other parents to be, any employees wishing to undergo these paths to parenthood are sometimes hesitant to ask about it, perceiving that it may have a negative impact on their career plans. Employees going through fertility treatment may also need time off for appointments and in times that their treatment is unsuccessful, emotional support

Pregnancy Loss

In many circumstances, employees who experience pregnancy loss or still-birth are still entitled to pregnancy leave. Work with your employee on a communication plan (if they wish for one) for when they return, including protecting them from curious team members. Make sure your employee is aware of the various support available to them through your benefits program(s) including therapy and grief counseling. Consider calling out pregnancy loss in your bereavement policy, so employees know they have access to additional  time off without having to ask.

Parental Discrimination

Many people have historically been faced with barriers to career advancement as a result of assumptions in family planning. This discrimination can come in many forms. One form of discrimination includes employers who may choose to overlook a candidate with children in favour someone who isn't interested in raising a family, and as a result of this discrimination (and the assumption that women are the main caregivers), women with children may especially struggle to advance in their workplace. Sometimes, women without children may not even be hired, based on the assumption that they may want to start a family in the future. Another type of discrimination can take the form of parents who may miss out on bonuses and pay increases while on leave (although it is prohibited by law to do so).

Often, parental discrimination can be well-meaning. Sometimes, a new parent is not offered a promotion or more complex role, or the opportunity to travel, based on the assumption of what they can and cannot handle. Our advice? Let them decide. If they decline an opportunity, it should be their call. Don’t make it for them. 

Gender-Neutral Policies

To combat discrimination, we encourage companies to extend their policies to their employees equally, regardless of gender identity. In practice, this means providing any parental leave supports to your entire workforce regardless of gender, whether that includes baby bonuses, top ups, extended leaves, flexible work schedules, or any other supports you may have. 

Another concern of gendered policies is that they do not account for those outside the gender binary, and may assume the gender of the birthing parent. To avoid this discrimination, we strongly recommend creating gender neutral polices: the same parental leave policy, and perks, for everyone.

The policies that regulate parental leave in Ontario and Canada are mostly gender-neutral and are available to all equally, with the exception of added support for people who have given birth. One thing that you can do as an employer to impact equity in your workplace is to build policies that create space for all parents to be involved in child caretaking, and have non-birthing parents model taking parental leave. When writing policy, try to use language that is inclusive ("birthing parent" vs "mother", “chestfeeding” vs “breastfeeding”, etc).

Human Rights ‘Good-To-Knows’

👍 As an employer

  • You must grant a pregnancy or parental leave. Employers cannot deny employees pregnancy or parental leave
  • You'll need to file a record of employment (ROE) when the employee goes on leave, so that the government can confirm their role and earnings and begin to pay them their EI
  • You must continue to provide benefits, vacation time and any tenure/seniority based compensation, awards or benefits/perks
  • You may have to change policies, rules, requirements, or practices to allow pregnant people equal opportunities. This could include more washroom breaks, a flexible schedule, or changes in job duties during pregnancy
  • You should accommodate any needs for nursing parents after a baby is born
  • You must ensure that a pregnant employee has the same right to health and disability benefits given to other employees if they are unable to work for health reasons related to pregnancy and childbirth
  • You must ensure that a flexible work schedule can be provided to accommodate medical appointments for expecting parents, including treatment for infertility, as well as chestfeeding needs

👎 As an employer

  • You may not deny an employee pregnancy or parental leave
  • You can not ask if an employee or candidate is pregnant, has a family, or plans to have a family
  • You can not refuse to hire, fire, demote, or lay an employee off because they are, were, or may become pregnant. You should not overlook a qualified employee for promotion due to them being pregnant or undergoing fertility treatment
  •  You should not assume a pregnant employee cannot perform all of their job functions. You can ask if they need accommodations, however
  • You may not require an employee to return to work sooner or request that they do unpaid work during their leave

Launching Your Policy Checklist

  • Your career website explicitly states the company parental leave policy
  • Your parental leave policy is included in a new employee onboarding package
  • All employees know how to access the company parental leave policy without needing to ask anyone else for it
  • Make a big deal! Announce the plan openly to the entire team, and allow time for questions

Leave Planning Checklist

  • Book a meeting to ensure the employee understands the types of leave and EI coverage, as well as additional pay, benefits and support the company offers
  • Discuss how and when they want to share the news with the company
  • Ask about their expected leave dates and return timeline, knowing that these things may change
  • Discuss their wishes for keeping in contact during leave. Some want to stay in the loop, and others would prefer to catch up when they’re back
  • If there is a compensation review scheduled while they are gone, provide an opportunity to opt-in or delay their review until they return. Include offering the ability to conduct this remotely
  • Check that you have notified payroll about any changes in the parental leave start date for an expecting employee. This includes ensuring that your employee provide their leave dates in writing, with the understanding from you that they may shift dependent on birth date or adoption date
  • Create a written transition plan with the employee for coverage of their leave duties
  • When the leave begins, file a record of employment (ROE), so that the government can confirm their role and earnings and begin to pay them their EI

Steal Me - A Sample Parental Leave Policy

The following is a sample parental leave policy. It is meant to be used as a starting point for teams that are looking to write their own parental leave policy. Feel free to edit it to represent the tone and voice of your organization.

This template does not constitute legal advice, nor is anything contained herein intended as legal advice.
If you have any questions or concerns about how to apply this Policy to your organization, please seek the assistance of a lawyer. Legislation and employment law in Ontario and Canada is constantly evolving and accordingly, this draft, sample Policy may require tailoring to suit your organization and/or updating before implementation. 

Family is important, and [COMPANY] is excited for any new addition to yours. We have designed our policy with the intention of supporting you in this time of adjustment.

New parents have the right, under the Employment Standards Act, to take pregnancy and/or parental leave as unpaid time off work when pregnant (including surrogacy) and/or when their baby or child is born, or first comes into their care (eg. through adoption). You can find information on your rights and responsibilities regarding pregnancy and parental Leave here. Employees can apply for payment through the government’s EI program, more details here.

[COMPANY] is pleased to offer a top up of your EI payments to [X%] of your regular salary for up to [X weeks], to compliment your entitlements under Canadian law. This benefit will apply to parents who are eligible to receive pregnancy/parental benefits as established by Service Canada. Any situations that are not covered under the maternity/parental provisions of Service Canada will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis.

[NOTE: If an employee is taking an extended parental leave, their EI payments will be lower, meaning your top up would be higher. If you do not intend to pay a higher top up for an extended leave, your policy should be clear on that. An option is to offer the same total $ amount of top up stretched out for longer at a reduced rate.]

We are also happy to provide [Outline any other extras, like gift $ or other child related benefits]

You and your family will be covered by health benefits as usual during your leave, with no change or delay in coverage. Don’t forget to add your new child to our benefits plan!

Employees will continue to earn credit toward tenure and seniority during a pregnancy or parental leave. Any entitlements (such as vacation credit) that accrue in accordance with tenure or seniority will also continue to accrue during the leave. Note that while vacation time continues to accrue during leave, vacation pay is calculated on earnings, and so the vacation accrued during leave will be unpaid. Any pregnancy or parental leave top up pay paid to the employee during their leave will include X% vacation pay. 

We ask Employees to give as much notice as possible of an upcoming pregnancy and/or parental leave, so that we can plan for your time off. Ideally we would like (x amount- i.e, 2 months) notice of the start of your leave, but the minimum notice required is two (2) weeks.

Other things to plan with your manager in advance are:

  • how you would like to share your news with your teammates;
  • how your work will be covered while you are away;
  • handover;
  • if/how you would like to stay in touch during your leave. You may wish to disconnect entirely, or you may wish to continue to receive updates, or still attend events. This is very much a personal choice;
  • how and when you will return.

For planning purposes, [COMPANY] requires that you give a minimum of four (4) weeks notice of your intended return to work.

We know returning to work can be daunting, don't worry. We'll arrange an onboarding to welcome you back and get you up to speed with any changes and important updates.