Mr. Speaker, I welcome the opportunity to discuss the expansion of the employment insurance system proposed in Bill C-278, legislation seeking to extend the maximum period from 15 weeks to 50 weeks for which EI benefits for illness, injury or a quarantine may be paid.
While I share the concern for those who must be absent from work owing to illness, I believe we should carefully review the adequacy of the EI sickness benefits available at present before endorsing the changes proposed in this bill.
Currently, the EI program provides for a 15 week sickness benefit designed to provide short term income replacement to individuals who are absent from their job due to illness, injury or quarantine. Claimants qualify with a medical certificate and 600 hours of insured work in the past year, as little as 12 hours a week.
Sickness benefits thus provide a quick response to those in need and they are fully integrated with the other EI benefits for job loss, such as maternity or parental benefits and compassionate care benefits.
The Canada Employment Insurance Commission monitors and assesses the impacts of the employment insurance system on the economy, communities and individuals, reporting its finding in an annual report.
The commission's latest report noted that the average duration of sickness benefits through 2004-05 remained stable at 9.5 weeks. This is consistent with a recent Statistics Canada study stating that the average work absence owing to illness or a disability has remained constant at 10 weeks for the past 13 years.
When viewed in this context, the 15 week EI sickness benefit is meeting the program's objective of providing short term, temporary income support to workers when they are ill.
For the interest of the House, I note that such a position is similar to that of the former Liberal government, which included the hon. member for Sydney—Victoria. In its response to a report of the Standing Committee on Human Resources, Social Development and the Status of Persons of Disabilities tabled in May 2005, the former Liberal government clearly stated that EI sickness benefits, as presently constructed, were adequately meeting its intended objective. I will quote verbatim from the Liberal response:
...the majority of workers who turn to EI when they are unable to work due to illness or injury, 15 weeks is meeting the objective of providing temporary income support.
As I previously stated, I would concur with such an assessment. Furthermore, I would question the hon. member for Sydney—Victoria for a logical explanation as to why such a reasoning is no longer valid.
Moreover, when considering changes to the EI sickness benefits, we should be cognizant of the diverse range of other programs or supports available for those absent from the labour market due to illness.
At present, EI sickness benefits are designed as a short term income replacement measure that complement, and I underline the word complement, a range of other supports that are available for longer term illnesses and disability, including benefits offered through employer sponsored group insurance plans, private coverage held by individuals and long term disability benefits available under the Canada pension plan.
Before adding 35 weeks to the 15 weeks of EI sickness benefits now available, we need to fully understand the needs of clients and the impacts on other types of support benefits. An extensive examination of other possible implications would also be required.
Such an examination would have to take into account a number of issues. One is a thorough study of the effects such an extension would have on the labour market, particularly with respect to employer-employee relationships. For example, under the current EI provision, an employer can expect an employee's return to work after a limited absence for health reasons or, if the person is unable to return, the establishment of other arrangements suited to a long term disability.
EI sickness benefits are intended to replace lost income for short term absence. If they were greatly extended, how would this affect the employer's obligation? When, for instance, would this working relationship end? This relationship bears careful consideration and consultation before contemplating any steps to extend sickness benefits.
In addition, an option for employers under the EI program is a reduction in their premiums if they provide coverage to their employees for short term illness, injury or quarantine that is at least equivalent to EI benefits.
Currently, reduced premiums are paid on about 60% of all insurable earnings in Canada, representing reduced premiums of about half a billion dollars for 34,000 employers across the country.
Clearly, a change of the magnitude proposed under Bill C-278 would considerably affect employers and the premium reduction program would require thorough examination to determine the full impact on businesses.
Another consideration is that the coverage employers provide to their employees is sometimes underwritten by private companies and an extended EI fund and sickness benefit could be in direct competition with the private sector in many instances.
An analysis of the effects on private insurers would be essential. The administration of EI itself would also be greatly affected by such a change.
At the present time, EI sickness benefits are simply and quickly processed based on a medical certificate from the claimant's doctor. If the duration of these benefits were increased substantially, it could require a reassessment of current EI sickness, design and delivery, including expanding medical assessment requirements, such as requiring a third party or a government doctor to issue the medical certificate. The relatively quick response now available might suffer or require the introduction of multi-step approvals on longer claims.
There is also the consideration of mixed claims. Often, claimants need a variety of EI benefits to combine, for example, maternity and sickness. The bill does not reflect its possible impact on other parts of the EI Act that would also need to be changed, such as dealing with combined special benefit claims.
Finally, the cost factor is certainly another important consideration. Considerable research would be required to determine an accurate cost estimate of increasing the benefit entitlement as extensively as proposed in the bill.
Nevertheless, we do share the hon. member's compassion for the people who find themselves unable to work due to illness. Indeed, our new government is committed to the monitoring and assessing of all aspects of the EI program to ensure it continues to serve Canadians in an effective and in a timely manner. This includes sickness benefits. We appreciate that some persons are absent from work for more than 15 weeks due to illness. However, at this point it is not clear as to whether EI is the appropriate mechanism for responding to these longer term absences from the labour market.
Nevertheless, further examination of the implications of extending EI sickness benefits, both within and outside of the parameters of Bill C-278, may be warranted.