by Daniel Tseghay, Rankandfile.ca’s BC correspondent
Gilary Massa worked for the Ryerson Students’ Union in Toronto. When she was laid off in December, she was in the middle of her maternity leave. So she filed a complaint to the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal, saying they fired her to save money. She’s one of many. Even though Ontario workers are entitled to year-long maternity leave, many are still fired while on it. Often the justification is some kind of restructuring. They weren’t fired, the employer will argue. Their job just no longer exists.
But another type of discrimination against women on maternity leave is taking place in British Columbia right now – clawbacks of maternity and parental leave benefits.
The Vancouver-based Community Legal Assistance Society (CLAS), recently filed a complaint to the BC Human Rights Tribunal on behalf of a Vancouver Island resident whose maternity and parental benefits were reduced by the BC government. The client was supposed to receive Employment Insurance benefits after her child’s birth, but instead the money was reduced to pay her husband’s disability assistance.
Laura Johnston, CLAS lawyer, points out that the client worked a part-time job and received disability benefits, which they’re allowed to do as long as they keep no more than $12,000 in wages. When she took maternity leave and made a claim for EI, which she was entitled to since she paid her premiums and accumulated enough hours, “the BC government clawed back, dollar for dollar, everything she got in EI benefits” and “her family dropped right down to the basic person with disability level, without either wages or EI benefits to help them through that period,” according to Johnston in an interview with Rankandfile.ca.
Their client is one of about 150 claimants to experience such a clawback in BC every year. Only women who give birth can take EI maternity benefits. And although EI parental is available to any parent, 92 per cent of BC residents in 2015 who claim EI parental benefits were women. “The claim in the case,” Johnston says, “is that the BC government’s claw back of EI maternity and EI parental benefits from disability assistance is sex discrimination against low income women.”
“I hope that with the potential for litigation in front of them the BC government will reconsider that decision and step up and address the policy rather than dragging the family through months of litigation,” says Johnston. “It’s a fairly easy fix. It wouldn’t require a legislative change. It’s a regulation that the Minister can take care of herself within her own ministry. And it would be fairly inexpensive. We’re not talking about a lot of money here for the government. But it’s a lot of money for the family.”
The effect of clawbacks of EI parental benefits is especially acute in BC where child poverty is above the Canadian average at 20.4 per cent and has remained stubbornly high for decades.