Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Disability Inclusion Carla Qualtrough holds a press conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, Sept. 24, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Disability Inclusion Carla Qualtrough holds a press conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, Sept. 24, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Liberals pressed to ease access to EI parental leave to help unemployed moms

OTTAWA — The federal government is being asked to give new and soon-to-be moms a Mothers Day gift by closing a hole in the safety net preventing some from having their maternity leave fully covered.

As is, eligible workers need a minimum number of hours on the job to qualify for employment insurance benefits, including maternity and parental leave.

But many moms have been unable to work because of pandemic-related job losses, and been caught by the EI safety net.

When a new mother receiving regular benefits gives birth, they have to file a new claim for maternity and parental benefits, meaning they need to meet the hours requirement anew, even though they have been unable to work because of the pandemic.

Opposition critics say they worry new parents might be forced to stay home without income support, or potentially be forced to look for work before they’re ready and able.

The Conservatives are asking the Liberals to allow expecting mothers to qualify for their full employment insurance parental leave, even if they are currently receiving federal unemployment aid.

The call follows a similar request made by the federal New Democrats to Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough that said a current workaround to allow unemployed mothers to qualify for EI wasn’t working.

It was just ahead of Mothers Day last year that the Liberals dealt with another unexpected flaw in the pandemic safety net where women who identified as pregnant on their EI applications weren’t automatically moved over to the Canada Emergency Response Benefit.

Since the EI system kicked back up in late September, just over 298,000 parents have received maternity and parental leave benefits for a combined value of nearly $2.7 billion, according to the latest federal data.

A handful of mothers-to-be worried they won’t be able to qualify for their full benefits told Conservative critic Raquel Dancho their stories during a virtual roundtable on Thursday morning.

Some spoke about not knowing how they would pay the bills, expressed frustrations at ongoing parental leave issues, and highlighted how they’re now scrambling to make the hours hoping that they can work enough.

“These are real situations with women and and men … trying to figure out how to do this at a very uncertain time,” Dancho said at the end of the roundtable.

“It’s an overwhelming time as it is, let alone now, and I think a lot of you really nailed it when you said, you know, parents have dealt with so much this year and now this is just one more thing and deeply unfair.”

Federal officials had come up with a workaround to the hours issue, giving a blanket, one-time credit to applicants who weren’t able to work because of the pandemic and needed federal aid.

In a recent letter to Qualtrough, NDP critic Daniel Blaikie noted some expectant mothers had the credit applied to their EI claims even though they had enough hours, which then made it impossible for them to have enough hours to access their maternity leave once their baby comes.

He suggested the government consider giving expecting parents an option to set aside their one-time credit of insurable hours to use instead for qualifying for maternity and parental leave.

“There must be a way to solve this problem and allow mothers whose work has been disrupted by the pandemic to access maternity benefits during these trying times,” Blaikie wrote in the April letter.

“If it requires a legislative response, I would welcome a conversation with you about how we can make that happen quickly. If not, I urge you to act without delay and look forward to hearing your plan for action promptly.”