Bill C-44, EI Parental Leave Benefits (second reading) December 4th, 2012
On the Order:
Resuming debate on the motion of the Honourable Senator Eaton, seconded by the Honourable Senator Seidman, for the second reading of Bill C-44, An Act to amend the Canada Labour Code and the Employment Insurance Act and to make consequential amendments to the Income Tax Act and the Income Tax Regulations.
Hon. Jane Cordy: Honourable senators, it is my pleasure to speak today to Bill C-44, An Act to amend the Canada Labour Code and the Employment Insurance Act and to make consequential amendments to the Income Tax Act and the Income Tax Regulations.
The amendments proposed in Bill C-44 are designed to provide improved support for families who find themselves in times of extraordinary hardships. As the sponsor of Bill C-44 stated, we can all sympathize with parents who are forced to deal with unimaginable hardships, and we must do what we can to provide the support these families need.
Bill C-44 enhances access to EI sickness benefits, special EI benefits for parents of critically ill children, and makes amendments to the Canada Labour Code to provide unpaid leave and job protection for parents tending to family tragedies.
I believe most of us support allowing a parent caring for their baby to suspend their parental benefits to apply for sickness benefits in the event that they fall ill while on parental leave, and to extend their parental benefits. This switch from parental to sickness benefits would be done without having to prove the claimant is otherwise available for work.
The government claims that Bill C-44 will provide access to sickness benefits for claimants who are in receipt of parental benefits. However, it needs to be stated that this enhanced access to sickness benefits during parental leave is not new and is currently provided for in the EI program. This enhanced access to sickness benefits was actually provided for by the Liberal government in 2002 in Bill C-49. Bill C-49 removed the caps, or anti-stacking rules, removing the barrier to making sickness claims while on parental leave.
In 2002, Bill C-49, brought forward by the Chrétien government, was intended to ensure that a person who falls ill during parental leave can collect EI sickness benefits. Ironically enough, the Conservatives, in opposition, voted against this bill in 2002.
The bill did pass. However, unfortunately, the department interpreted the law in a way to deny sickness benefits before, during and after parental leave. It took an appeal challenge in 2011 to the EI Umpire to get clarification. The Employment Insurance Umpire ruled that legislative changes in Bill C-49 were intended to make sickness benefits available to women who became ill immediately before, during or after receiving maternal or parental benefits. However, claimants are continuing to be denied these benefits even after the umpire's ruling, and I hope that Bill C-44 will provide clarification to the current rules and correct this injustice.
Unfortunately, in the budget bill brought forward in the spring of 2012 by the Conservative government, Bill C-38, an omnibus bill, did away with Employment Insurance Umpires and Employment Insurance Boards of Referees. If a worker's claim is dismissed by the new Ottawa-based tribunal, there can be no appeal to an umpire as there was in 2011. If a claimant's appeal to a one-person Ottawa-based tribunal is rejected, there will be no umpire because that stage of appeal was axed with Bill C-38 in the spring of this year.
Another welcome change proposed in Bill C-44 is the creation of an EI benefit that would provide income support for up to 35 weeks to eligible parents caring for a child with a critical illness or injury. The key word here is "eligible." To be eligible to qualify for this benefit, a claimant must have 600 hours of employment over six months.
Our economy is shifting drastically toward part-time employment. Recent numbers show that one in seven employed Canadians are part-time employees, with close to 80 per cent of fathers and 75 per cent of mothers not reaching the 600-hour requirement. If the numbers were to be broken down, one would find that nearly 275,000 fathers and 680,000 mothers would not qualify for this benefit. More must be done to allow these parents access to the programs available to other parents.
The number of hours of labour force attachment should be reduced to 420 over six consecutive months instead of the 600 required in this bill. This change would ensure benefits to part-time workers who would not otherwise qualify for this EI benefit. This would truly help families in need, because Bill C-44 is called the Helping Families in Need Act. If we really want to help families in need, we should consider reducing the hours from 600 to 420 over six consecutive months.
Additionally, I hope that the definition of "critical illness," which is not in the bill but will be in the regulations, will be flexible enough to allow the help to parents who need the financial support at a time of great stress to families.
I also question the 35-week cap on benefits. As we all know, many treatments of serious illnesses require a minimum of 35 weeks. I am thinking specifically of cancer treatments, which span months with chemotherapy, radiation treatment and surgery.
I think the least we can do with this bill is to provide a minimum of 52 weeks of benefits for families who are caring for a sick child.
Along with the amendments to the Canada Labour Code proposed in this bill, to protect the parents' employment and allow unpaid leave for parents whose child dies or disappears as a result of a suspected criminal offence or who need to care for a critically ill child this is a compassionate and much-needed small step forward.
I support the first steps this bill takes to help ensure parents do not suffer additional financial hardships when caring for critically ill children or dealing with a child who died or disappeared as a result of suspected criminal activities.
I look forward to the opportunity to study Bill C-44 in committee.
The Hon. the Speaker pro tempore: Will the honourable senator accept a question?
Senator Cordy: Yes.
Hon. Catherine S. Callbeck: Thank you for the explanation of the legislation we have before us. Certainly, I am in favour of improving support for families. However, I want to ask the honourable senator about one change that I do not see here and it is something I would like to see in legislation and that is concerning the two-week waiting period for maternity and parental benefits. That is a unique situation and the two-week period in those situations really causes unfair hardship.
I would like to ask the honourable senator her opinion on that.
Senator Cordy: I thank the honourable senator for her excellent question. I know that Senator Callbeck has spoken on this on a number of occasions in the Senate. She is absolutely right. When I had my briefing with the department yesterday, I brought up that very point and I said we are talking about a bill that has the wonderful title of helping families in need, and yet we have families who are having to wait for two weeks with no income coming in. If in fact we are supposed to be helping families in need, then I agree that this should have been an important part of this bill, that we did away with the two-week waiting period. As the honourable senator has said in the chamber on other occasions, the two-week waiting time would not cost anything extra for the government. It would simply mean that people begin to collect benefits immediately.
I am not sure why this measure was not included in the bill. This piece of legislation would have been the perfect opportunity to bring forward doing away with the waiting times. It is certainly something about which we are well aware. The honourable senator has spoken on this subject so many times, and others in the chamber have spoken about it. This would indeed have been the perfect time to bring forward that legislation at no cost to the government.