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Giving birth during a global pandemic is stressful enough without having to worry about losing out on federal parental benefits.
And yet, many new and soon-to-be Canadian moms are grappling with that reality as they’ve gone from eligible to ineligible because of lost hours. As reported last week by The Canadian Press, some new moms have found themselves shy of the number of hours required to qualify for employment insurance, owing to layoffs and terminations amid the pandemic.
EI requires 600 hours of work in the 52 weeks before taking leave. That’s about four months at 37.5 hours a week.
This isn’t the first COVID 19-related issue pregnant Canadians have had to navigate with respect to benefits. In April, when the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) was introduced, many expectant working moms who had lost their jobs weren’t migrated over to the $2,000-a-month benefit as expected, because they had previously indentified themselves as being pregnant on their EI applications, forcing them to start their EI claims early.
At the heart of both problems: the 46-year-old computer system used to support the EI system.
Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough has said the outmoded program is an explanation, not an excuse, as to why EI can’t pivot quickly, and that the government is "working on it."
"It is a tough system to navigate, but I can assure everybody that we will figure this out and be there for all Canadians," she told a special COVID-19 committee of MPs at the beginning of June.
The thing is, maternity and parental leave has long been a positively Byzantine system to navigate in this country. And although no one is saying the government could have predicted a pandemic, the relatively ancient computer system was in need of an upgrade long before COVID-19 was even a dark cloud on the horizon.
The issues with parental leave in this country are bigger than software. As Kathryn Marshall, a Toronto employment lawyer, recently wrote in a National Post op-ed calling for parental leave reform: "This dilemma illustrates the real issue at play: maternity leave shouldn’t be part of the EI system. It should be a stand-alone program that’s tailored to the unique needs of women (and men) on maternity and parental leave."
Indeed, the world has changed a lot since paid maternity leave came on the scene in Canada in 1971, the biggest being the number of women of child-bearing age in the workforce and who are eager to return to work. The nature of employment has also changed; moms who work as freelancers, entrepreneurs or in the gig economy might find they are either completely ineligible for parental-leave benefits or have to jump through hoops to qualify.
In 2017, Canada began offering extended 18-week parental leaves and, last year, the feds rolled out a "use-it-or-lose-it" parental sharing benefit that offered yet more weeks to parents who agreed to share it and qualified for EI. It represented progress, encourgaging more dads to take leave. But more time is hardly a benefit if you can’t afford to take it.
What the frustrations of the past few weeks have made clear: a stand-alone, flexible, easy-to-navigate parental leave program that supports modern parents — and, ideally, is itself supported by a modern computer program — is way past its due date.
Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board.
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