Bill C-44, EI Parental Leave Benefits (third reading) December 12th, 2012
On the Order:
Resuming debate on the motion of the Honourable Senator Eaton, seconded by the Honourable Senator Rivard, for the third 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, I am pleased to speak today at third reading 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 bill provides additional support to parents who fall ill while on parental leave. It provides an Employment Insurance special benefit for parents of critically ill children and it makes amendments to the Canada Labour Code to provide unpaid leave guarantees for parents of missing or murdered children as the result of a suspected Criminal Code offence.
I and my Liberal colleagues support Bill C-44 and the assistance it will provide for some Canadian parents dealing with traumatic family circumstances. Parents going through the emotional pain of having a critically ill child, or a child who is missing or dies as a result of a suspected criminal offence, certainly should not have the trauma compounded by further financial burden.
Although I support this bill, I believe this is a missed opportunity. Bill C-44 could have been more inclusive by supporting a greater number of Canadian families suffering through unimaginable hardships. I spoke at second reading about the shortcomings of Bill C-44 in regard to helping parents of critically ill children who work at part-time jobs and do not meet the required number of 600 insurable hours the previous year. This issue was brought up at committee. When determining the 600-hour criterion, no factors were considered beyond this being the criterion for other special EI benefit programs.
The government should have taken a closer look at the Canadian workforce to understand the realities of working families and to design the program to best serve those families in need. I believe the requirements should be 420 hours, which would be in line with the average number of hours a Canadian parent working part-time accumulates in a year.
Unfortunately, we know that less than half of unemployed Canadians qualify for Employment Insurance benefits. If they are not entitled to Employment Insurance benefits, they will not be entitled to special EI benefits to care for a critically ill child.
I also believe that the leave of absence allowance for a parent of a critically ill child should have been extended in this bill from 37 to 52 weeks, as many illnesses and treatments exceed 37 weeks. This extension to 52 weeks would be in alignment with the amount of time and support provided to a parent of a missing or murdered child as granted under this bill.
Additional support could also have been provided for parents of a critically ill child who may die as a result of the illness. The bill provides that parent benefits would expire on the last day of the week in which the child dies.
The committee brought forward an observation to the bill that states:
However, your committee heard that parents grieving the loss of a child should be permitted the same timeframe to return to work regardless of whether that loss was the result of illness or a criminal act. Your committee notes that parents would be required to return to work 14 days after the day on which a child is found following their disappearance but parents of a child who has passed away as a result of a critical illness would be required to return to work at the end of the week during which the child died. Your committee acknowledges that bereavement leave is offered by many employers but notes that not all employers offer this type of leave. Consequently, your committee suggests that the leave be harmonized for all parents who have suffered the loss of a child regardless of whether it was result of a crime or because of illness.
I would hope that the minister would consider harmonizing the time available to parents who have lost a child to murder with that available to parents who have lost a child to a critical illness for whom the employment bereavement benefits are not in place.
The committee heard some excellent testimony from Sue O'Sullivan, the Federal Ombudsman from the Office of the Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime. She presented a compelling argument that clauses in the bill should be more inclusive. She stated at the committee:
While we support both of these measures, it is apparent that the new provisions for unpaid leave and the income support program do not address the circumstances of many victims of crime and could be more inclusive of their visibility and reach. Therefore, our office will be asking the committee to consider amending and broadening the reach of unpaid leave and income support in order to be more inclusive of the needs of victims of crime.
She further stated:
. . . Widening the reach of the Canada Labour Code amendments to be more inclusive of victims of crime to include, for instance, leave for spouses and siblings, and removing the age limit of 18 years of age. . . .
Honourable senators, I believe that we would all agree that the parent of a missing or murdered 19-year-old child would be no less traumatized than the parent of a 17-year-old child.
The committee in its report to the Senate recognized this testimony in its observation:
In addition, your committee notes the testimony of the Office of the Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime that consideration should be given in the future to expand the grant offered to parents who have lost a child as a result of a crime to additional family members, such as a spouse, an adult child, or other siblings.
This observation would then include missing and murdered Aboriginal women who, as we know, are six times more likely to be victims of violence. I would like to thank Senator Dyck for her interventions at committee about the challenges faced by families of the far too many missing and murdered Aboriginal women. Again, I would hope that the government would move to make these changes in future legislation.
Part of Bill C-44 is actually a clarification of the rules, as opposed to new legislation. In 2002, Parliament passed Bill C-49, brought forward by the Liberal government of the day. It removed the obstacles to allow for parents to claim sickness benefits while on parental leave. Bill C-49 removed the anti-stacking provisions in the act to allow for the claiming of sickness benefits while on parental leave.
Unfortunately, the bureaucracy continued to interpret the act in a way that denied parents these benefits for almost 10 years. It was not until a ruling by an Employment Insurance umpire in 2011 when sickness benefits were granted to a woman on parental leave. The umpire ruled that the legislative changes brought in by the Liberal government in 2002 were intended to make sickness benefits available to parents who became ill immediately before, during or after receiving parental benefits. It is worth noting that the Conservative government did not appeal this decision. Bill C-44 does not bring forth anything new regarding the extension of the sickness benefits to parents in receipt of parental benefits, but as Minister Finley said at committee, it will provide clarification to the current rules and correct this injustice.
This clarification is needed more now that this government saw fit in its omnibus Bill C-38 to eliminate the regional Employment Insurance boards of referees and umpires and to replace them with an Ottawa-based tribunal. The parents who were forced to resort to appealing their sickness benefits cases before an EI board of referees and then to an EI umpire will be forced to appeal their case before an Ottawa-based tribunal, which will be charged with hearing Employment Insurance, Canada Pension Plan and Old Age Security benefits. Of the 74 members of the tribunal, only 37 will be dedicated to deal with Employment Insurance disputes. Last year, nearly 26,000 Employment Insurance appeals were heard, and there will be only 37 tribunal members based in Ottawa to hear their appeals. There will no longer be an Employment Insurance umpire for further appeal.
In conclusion, I wish to reaffirm my support for Bill C-44, and I would like to thank Senator Eaton for her work on this bill and her openness to accepting observations on the legislation to reflect what committee members heard from witnesses. By working together, we can help to make things better for Canadians, and of course that is our job as the chamber of sober second thought. Thank you to Senator Eaton.
It is unfortunate that the government did not take the opportunity to strengthen the bill with amendments proposed in the House of Commons. However, it is my hope that the observations put forward by the Standing Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology will be considered by this government in the future.