Statement made on 29 May 2012 by Senator Catherine Callbeck
Hon. Catherine S. Callbeck:
Honourable senators, I am pleased to rise today on an issue that has been brought to my attention several times by people in my province. As honourable senators know, the Employment Insurance benefit proposes a two-week waiting period before a claimant can begin to receive either regular benefits, like when a person becomes unemployed, or special benefits, like for maternity or parental leave. I believe that the case of maternity and parental benefits is unique and that the federal government should eliminate the two-week waiting period for these types of benefits.
Since 1971, eligible biological new mothers can claim up to 15 weeks for maternity benefits. The benefits are capped at 55 per cent of their average insured earnings. Parental leave benefits were added in 1990 and were extended over the years so that parents now have up to a year of leave to care for their newborn babies. Right now, benefits can be received for up to 50 weeks; 15 weeks of maternity benefits for biological mothers only and 35 weeks of parental benefit, which are available to either parent, biological or adoptive, that can be shared.
In 2008 and 2009, more than 172,000 new mothers claimed maternity benefits, receiving an average weekly income replacement of $350. In addition, nearly 194,000 biological and adoptive parents registered for parental benefits and received an average $384 per week.
The two-week waiting period applies to every new claim. I think this waiting period imposes an unfair hardship and should be eliminated for maternity and parental benefits.
There has been considerable debate and discussion among various groups about this proposal. It has been suggested that eliminating the two-week waiting period for EI maternity benefits is not needed; there is no demand for it. I beg to disagree with that.
First and foremost, the measure has been widely advocated by the House of Commons Standing Committee on the Status of Women, which is made up of members of Parliament from all parties, as we all know. In fact, in its report in June 2009, this particular recommendation was endorsed by all members of the committee and received no dissenting commentary. The committee noted that it heard from several witnesses that the two-week waiting period for special benefit claims should be eliminated.
The elimination of the waiting period has also been advocated by the National Association of Women and the Law; the Canadian Federation of Business and Professional Women; the Liberal Women's Caucus; and, in my own province, the Women's Network of Prince Edward Island.
It has been suggested that the two-week waiting period eliminates short claims. Why should this apply to maternity and parental leaves? They are not short-term claims; they are actually very predictable in their start and duration. The average maternity benefit claim is for 14.6 weeks, just a few days short of the 15-week maximum. The average parental leave for biological and adoptive parents together is 28.3 weeks.
Eliminating the two-week waiting period would also not make these claims any more costly to administer. Applicants will not get their money any faster; payments will simply go back to the first day of the claim. In fact, maternity and parental benefits should be the easiest of all the EI benefits to administer. Again, they are predictable in their start and in their duration. It is inappropriate to place a waiting period on the people who are applying for these benefits.
When a family welcomes a new member, parents experience a drastic reduction of income when one parent stops working — often it is the mother. They also experience serious additional costs in preparing for the new addition. Less income and additional expenses put a tremendous squeeze on new parents. The Québec Parental Insurance Plan recognizes this situation and does not impose a two-week waiting period for maternity and parental benefits.
Losing two weeks of income can be a terrible financial burden on families, especially for single parents. Indeed, about 16 per cent of single-father households live below the low-income cut-off, while more than 32 per cent of single-mother households live below the LICO. They are almost four times more likely to be poor than a two-parent household. All in all, almost 30 per cent of all single parents live below the poverty line.
The Canadians who are hardest hit by the waiting period are low-income mothers, who will rely solely on maternity and parental benefits. Many never receive an income supplement from their employers and find it difficult enough to support their new babies on just 55 per cent of their regular income.
Honourable senators, eliminating the two-week waiting period is a straightforward and easy change that would provide immediate support to Canadian families when they need it. It makes perfect sense. Maternity and parental benefits play a critical role for families. Support of these benefits allows women and men to stay home to nurture their child, which helps the child, their family and society at large. It is also good public policy. It helps new mothers and fathers bond with their children without too much financial worry, ensuring babies can have the very best start in life.
Furthermore, it would not cost the taxpayer one cent more. It would not extend the benefit period. It would be administered in existing facilities by existing employees. It will not require any additional time.
This is certainly an easy change, one that will help mothers, fathers, babies and our communities without costing the taxpayer anything more. I urge the federal government to reconsider eliminating the two-week waiting period for Employment Insurance maternity and parental benefits.
Hon. Jane Cordy: Would the honourable senator take a question?
Senator Callbeck: Yes.
Senator Cordy: I thank the honourable senator for her initiative on this very important issue, particularly for those who are low-income parents or low-income single mothers, because the two-week waiting period certainly causes great financial hardship.
The honourable senator talked about the two-week waiting period and said that the reason for it was to eliminate short-term claims. However, the honourable senator said, rightfully so, that it does not matter with parental leave or maternity leave because they will be claiming for only 50 weeks. Also, it should be a very easy file to administer, because they know that 50 weeks is the limit. Whether the two weeks are at the beginning, without the waiting period, or at the end, it will not cost taxpayers of Canada any additional money, but it will certainly make it much easier for new parents.
Does the honourable senator believe this would be an easy change to make, administratively?
Senator Callbeck: I thank the honourable senator for the question. Certainly, as the honourable senator says, it is very important to low-income families.
I do not see it as a difficult change at all. The recipient will get 50 weeks and they will get paid from day 1. I think it would really help out low-income families, especially, as I said, single mothers, who are having a difficult time if they are relying only on maternity and parental benefits, because they get only 55 per cent of their salary.
Therefore, no, I do not think this would be a difficult change at all. I think it would be very easy to bring about and one that would certainly be well received.