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Employment & Labour

New law good news for EI claimants

Arthur Zeilikman

A new law that opens up access to sickness benefits for EI claimants on maternity or parental leave is positive news for families, says Toronto labour and employment lawyer Arthur Zeilikman.

“In my opinion, the Helping Families in Need Act is a welcome attempt to aid those who find themselves doubly vulnerable,” he says. “It is bad enough to be unemployed; it is worse to be unemployed while being seriously sick. People should be able to get some of the EI money back when they are most in need of it, especially when disabled."

The act, which came into effect last month, is expected to help about 6,000 parents a year, the Toronto Star reports.  Read Toronto Star

In the past, EI claimants on maternity or parental leave couldn’t get sickness benefits because the law required them to be “otherwise available for work.” The new legislation waives that requirement, the report says.

“A great deal of criticism is directed at EI recipients for being ‘on the dole,’” says Zeilikman, who also practises civil litigation. “However, people need to be reminded that individuals in receipt of EI benefits are only able to receive benefits because they make contributions to the system, often for years.”

The article also discusses the plight of a Stratford-area mother diagnosed with breast cancer during maternity leave. Jane Kittmer says Ottawa is fighting her claim for EI sickness benefits, while, at the same time, welcoming the new law meant to help people like her, the Star reports.

Kittmer was diagnosed with breast cancer in April 2010 while receiving EI maternity benefits and was denied sickness benefits, the report says, noting Kittmer took her case to the EI umpire last fall and won - but the government is appealing the decision.

Zeilikman says while it’s unknown whether the issues under appeal relate to substantive law or to procedural questions, there does appear to be a disconnect between Kittmer’s case and the purpose of the new law.

But, he notes: “While the umpire’s decision is binding on the decision-makers below, the government is free to appeal an umpire's decision all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada, provided the relevant leave requirements are satisfied. Thus, legally speaking, unless it amounts to an abuse of process, the government is free to appeal on substantive grounds even if the law would ultimately defeat the government’s argument.”

Generally speaking, Zeilikman says more aspects to the EI system could also benefit from change.

“The system could use a change in the early levels of administrative decision-making,” he says. “More training as to the nature of the governing law, particularly in relation to principles of procedural fairness, should be provided to individuals presiding over the Board of Referees hearings.”

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