OTTAWA — Alexis Adams is joyful about the arrival of her third daughter but she is also concerned about how to pay for another maternity leave that is, like her daughter, barely a week old.
Adams lost her job in late March when COVID-19 shut down the television show she was working on. She was about 150 hours short of qualifying for employment insurance, which is how the federal government delivers maternity and parental leave benefits.
“It’s very, very troubling,” Adams, 39, said over the phone as she explained how she and her family were counting on the benefits to cover living expenses.
“We have a mortgage, we’ve had to defer our mortgage, all of those things that everyone else is dealing with,” she said.
“It gives us, both my husband and I, knots in our stomachs to think about it.”
Her story is being repeated across the country as new mothers, and those still expecting, stare down losing out on federal parental benefits through no fault of their own.
The minister in charge of the file vowed anew in recent days that a fix was coming to help those women qualify, but told MPs that there isn’t a simple solution.
EI requires a minimum number of hours in the 52 weeks before making a claim to qualify for payments. Since March, some new and soon-to-be mothers couldn’t work because of public health restrictions. Many were among the first wave of layoffs in March when the pandemic hit the country, or lost jobs that they had lined up.
Pascale Gibeau, 39, had a position lined up for early April, right after finishing her doctorate. She figured she could earn the 600 hours needed before her second child is due in mid-July.
Her start date, though, got pushed back to May. Then June. Her plan was toast. She will have to rely on what she’ll receive from EI as a self-employed worker, which would be less than had she hit the 600-hour mark.
She and other mothers in Squamish, B.C., including Adams, wrote their local MP, Liberal Patrick Weiler, who promised the government was trying to figure out a solution. They have continued to write, but haven’t heard anything new.
Adams called Service Canada. She was told she needed to work the necessary hours by December to qualify for 35 weeks of parental benefits.
“In my field, TV and film, no one is back 100 per cent in production,” Adams said.
“It’s not like tomorrow I could go to my colleagues and be like, ‘someone please give me a job,’ and work from home, and deal with children and a newborn. It’s obviously not feasible at this point.”
Conservative employment critic Dan Albas spoke about a case brought to him of a mother who was 40 hours short of qualifying — about one week of work. She and other new parents “have absolutely zero certainty” about their benefits, he said.
“This is not a future problem that needs to be looked at and analyzed. This is a problem right now for those parents,” Albas said in an interview.
“It’s challenging enough to have a child during a pandemic. With no understanding of what your maternity leave benefits will be? That is devastating.”
MPs have previously heard that the issue stems from the system that runs EI, parts of which are run by a programming code that is decades old. Officials have said they can’t simply change the number of hours required for eligibility. The 46-year-old system was not designed to handle quick changes, and doing so could cause a cascade of payment problems.
Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough has said the fact it is complicated is not an excuse.
“We know that there are many groups of people who because of COVID and for COVID reasons will not have accumulated sufficient hours or time to access EI benefits,” she told a special COVID-19 committee of MPs last week.
“We are working on it. It is a tough system to navigate, but I can assure everybody that we will figure this out and be there for all Canadians.”
In the meantime, Gibeau said she continues to hear from other worried women. They are concerned about working during a pandemic or finding child care for infants under age one, which was already difficult before the pandemic.
“I find it’s very cold-blooded to ask women that just gave birth to basically go back to work,” Gibeau said.
“Not only have they just given birth with all the challenge that implies in terms of recovery, but finding work right now is not exactly an easy task.”
Jordan Press, The Canadian Press