EI rules challenged as discriminatory to disabled workers

Manitoba woman with Down syndrome was denied EI benefits because she was unable to work the number of required hours

The family of a woman with Down syndrome is challenging the rules governing Employment Insurance (EI), saying they discriminate against the disabled.

Sabrina Prokopiuk, 32, worked for nine years as a change room attendant at a Gap clothing store in Winnipeg. In the spring of 2007, the store closed for renovations and laid off most of its staff for the four months the renovations would take.

Many of the store’s employees applied for EI, but Prokopiuk didn't qualify. Her family says it's because her disability made it hard for her to accumulate enough hours to meet the EI requirements.

Prokopiuk's family, sought help from Legal Aid Manitoba's Public Interest Law Centre, and took the matter to a Federal Court judge, claiming EI rules are unconstitutional and a violation of her right to equality under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Sabrina worked 574 hours in the year before she was laid off, but EI rules stipulate Manitoba workers need 700 hours to qualify for benefits.

“We are taking advantage of disabled people who are just trying to be productive members of society and live up to their potential,” Shirley Prokopiuk, Sabrina's mother, told the Canadian Press. “It's just wrong.”

Sabrina paid thousands of dollars into the EI program during her time at The Gap, but wasn't eligible to collect any benefits when she got laid off.

The Prokopiuks first went before the Board of Referees, the first level of appeal for EI disputes. The board rejected Sabrina's claim because it doesn't have jurisdiction in charter challenges, so the family went to an EI umpire — usually a Federal Court judge — to review the case.

Their claim argues EI rules should take into consideration people with intellectual disabilities are at a disadvantage and should have different rules from able-bodied workers, similar to different rules for workers in areas of the country that have varying levels of unemployment.

The Prokopiuks say they are ready to go to the Supreme Court if necessary because it’s important to make EI accessible to people with intellectual and physical disabilities.

“It's not about the money — it's maybe $700 over four months. Big deal. It's the principle that counts,” Shirley Prokopiuk told the Canadian Press.

A hearing could take place as early as this fall. Sabrina now has a clerical job with Direct Action in Support of Community Homes and also works at Value Village.

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