A policy that limits coverage of maternity benefits in Ontario — a policy that could put the lives of new mothers at risk — illustrates how a growing number of employers across the country are refusing to accommodate employee priorities and choices for fear of losing employees to other companies with better benefits.
Nearly two decades ago, Ontario implemented what’s known as the Single Premium Budgeting (SPB) program to save money. The program began with a promise of a seamless transition in employee benefits as health coverage was transferred to their new employer. At the time, the government said the policy “creates clear understanding that decisions can be made for each family individually.”
That was in 2006.
But today, a growing number of new parents in Ontario are being denied coverage for maternity coverage, typically because they cannot switch health insurance providers or the companies they work for elect not to pay for maternity benefits. As a result, they’re going without needed medical care and potentially being put at risk for severe health conditions.
According to recent research, almost 10 percent of Ontario women are turning to charity for basic necessities like clothing and diapers, sometimes for three or four years, and thousands of new mothers are falling through the cracks.
According to a new survey released by the Campaign Life Coalition (CLC), nearly 9 percent of new mothers said they were forced to borrow money from family or friends when they were unable to access basic needs or employer-sponsored services.
The reasons for this growing crisis are complex. Data show there is a gender wage gap in Canada, where women earn less than men for the same work, and is there a factor that contributes to it? In Ontario, men earned $3,500 more than women in full-time, year-round work in 2018. Women are more likely to take maternity leave than men, often with very well-paid jobs. In 2018, 40 percent of women stayed on maternity leave for longer than full pay.
What might a modern policy that served the purpose it was meant to for as simple as switching plans — while still providing a women who can’t afford maternity care with access to health services she needs — look like?
Changing a hard-wired culture
To break the cycle of poverty and inequity, we need to work with employers to rethink the system. Whether we’re talking about maternity or retirement benefits, employers should offer out-of-pocket deductibles and be willing to pay for services like fertility care, fertility preservation and surrogacy, and make decisions about employee health and retirement benefits more transparent and employee informed.
Ontario’s policymakers have taken positive steps to improve the financial and workplace security of new parents in recent years. The government is reducing health-care premiums for parents, cutting infant and maternity benefits for low-income workers, and introducing a low-income cap on premiums.
We need policymakers to keep pushing for expanded health care and a system that respects the choices workers make about their own health and well-being and puts those choices above the bottom line for business.
It’s about letting employees know they matter. For families with new moms and dads to thrive, we need an economy that treats parents with dignity and fairness, not one that imposes its moral judgment on employees and encourages employers to deny necessary benefits.
Sally Rothblum is the executive director of CLC. This column was co-written with Jamie Kimbrough.