Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Maternity leave should not stop sickness benefits

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Six months of chemotherapy. A double mastectomy. Fighting the federal government for $6,000 in sickness benefits. Any one of those is a challenge most of us can't fathom. Going through all three while raising an infant son is more than any Canadian woman should have to endure.

But when Toronto mother Natalya Rougas did it last year she told herself: "It's not only for me. It's for other women, too." What a kick in the teeth, then, to discover that her successful battle for fair treatment under employment insurance while on maternity leave has not helped others.

Jennifer McCrea found herself in the exact same circumstance -- diagnosed with breast cancer while on maternity leave -- and was denied sickness benefits earlier this year. The Calgary mother applied for six weeks of benefits, about $2,400, to recover from her double mastectomy. She was turned down because she was not "available for work."

How can this be? In Rougas's precedent-setting case, Justice J.R. Marin ruled that legislative changes made nearly a decade ago were intended to give women access to sickness benefits regardless of whether it is before, during or after their maternity leave. He said a more "liberal interpretation" of the available-for-work regulation was required or the government had to update the legislation.

Shamefully, Human Resources Minister Diane Finley has done neither. That means that each woman who is denied either walks away from the benefits she is entitled to or has to find a lawyer and refight a battle that has already been won. That makes no sense, not on financial grounds and certainly not on compassionate ones.

This ruling affects so few people (it's estimated between 3,000 and 4,000 a year) that it will probably cost the government more to fight the cases than it would to pay up. In his ruling, Marin said fixing this mess would not open the floodgates but "would offer minimum comfort and solace to a small, hard-hit sector of society."

What is Finley waiting for? She should immediately direct employment insurance offices to follow Marin's ruling and fix the legislation to make sure the change sticks.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 19, 2011 A11

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