EI double-dipping or true intent of benefits?

By Jeffrey R. Smith ([email protected])

In Canada, we pride ourselves on giving new parents a generous amount of time off work with some income through maternity and parental benefits through the employment insurance (EI) program.

Added up, benefits total nearly a full year during which one of the parents can stay home and look after the baby while receiving a portion of their normal salary. Some employers even top up the amount so the parent on leave receives her full salary for a period of time. But what happens when the parental benefits run out and the employee is unable to return to work?

This happened to Natalya Rougas, a 37-year-old Toronto woman. Last week, the Toronto Star reported Rougas was expected to return to work in January 2010 after giving birth to her son in January 2009. However, shortly before her return-to-work date, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and began chemotherapy treatment.

Normally, an employee who has to undergo treatment for a medical condition that prevents her from being able to work would be eligible for EI sickness benefits, up to a maximum of 15 weeks. However, Rougas’ claim for sickness benefits was rejected because, according to her letter from Human Resources and Skills Development Canada, she would not have otherwise been working had she not fallen ill. However, the reason she wasn’t working was because she was still on parental leave.

Is this a misinterpretation of EI legislation, or just an unfair provision? If a mother gets sick and needs to take medical leave before she goes on maternity leave, she is eligible to have the 15 weeks of sickness benefits and then her full maternity and parental leave benefits. Does it make sense to deny sickness benefits when the reason she isn’t working is an already-approved parental leave?

Should she be considered employed if she has a planned return-to-work date in the near future, as Rougas did? Or should EI claims evaluators stick to a strict interpretation to help save money for a system that is becoming taxed to the limit and will result in increased EI premiums in the next few years?

There seems to be some inconsistency with the intended purpose of EI benefits and the way they are being administered in this case, leaving a new mother unemployed and with no income while facing rising medical expenses. Should already existing benefits prevent someone from getting further benefits added on when the new claim — in this case sickness benefits — is different from the existing benefits?

Jeffrey R. Smith is the editor of Canadian Employment Law Today, a publication that looks at workplace law from a business perspective. For more information, visit www.employmentlawtoday.com.

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