Thank you, Mr. Chair.
I'm kind of getting to like this seat down here. I'm usually here, and I spent some time over there. I guess it takes 19 years to get to this end of the table.
Members of the committee, I don't suppose that many Canadians spend a lot of time reading the EI Act to become familiar with it. I certainly didn't until I had an incident in my riding that sent me there. It involved a young lady who had worked for a period of time, 15 years, paid EI premiums, and decided to take some time off to upgrade her skills at her own expense and by her own decision.
She took 12 or 13 months off. She acquired her certificate to ensure she would have a better chance of keeping employment and be in a more steady job. She got a job. She went back to work for two months and started feeling not too well. She went to the doctor, and, sadly, it was discovered after some tests that she had cancer. It was a nasty type, and she had to leave her job and became bedridden at home. Her husband had to take time off his job to look after her as well as he could at home, when he could, so his earnings were reduced.
She was told that maybe she should apply for EI and get some benefits from it. She did, and because she had taken a year off by her own choice and hadn't worked in that period, she was not eligible, of course, because the way the EI Act reads, you have to work in that 52-week qualifying period. Unfortunately, she simply wasn't eligible to receive benefits.
That's the situation that brought my attention to this. I said it was unfair, and I wanted to find out why she wasn't eligible. I looked into it and read the act, and according to the act, that was right. I thought maybe a mistake was made. However, when I looked at the act, I found that you could make application for extensions in some circumstances. I read under subsection 8(2) of the Employment Insurance Act that an extension of the qualifying period—which would have helped this young lady—might be granted provided that during the weeks for which the extension was requested the claimant was not in receipt of unemployment benefits and was prevented from working while insurable for one of the following reasons:
(a) incapable of work because of...illness, injury, quarantine or pregnancy;
(c) receiving assistance under employment benefits;
And from the “Digest of Benefit Entitlement Principles”, section 1.3.1:
3. attendance at a course or other employment...following referral by the Commission or designated third party;
—or paragraph 1.5.1 of those principles—
[receiving] payments under a provincial law for...preventative withdrawal.
Those are all legitimate reasons. In the case of this young lady, she voluntarily took a year off to upgrade her skills. She wasn't sick or anything in that period. She wasn't receiving any benefits, and she wasn't receiving any provincial payments. But thrown into that, there is a fourth one, which says you can apply for an extension to the qualifying period or the benefit period if you are
(b) confined in a jail, penitentiary or other similar institution.
In other words, if you work for a number of years, make a voluntary decision to commit a crime, get caught, go to court, and get convicted for that crime and get sentenced to eight months in jail, when you come out you can apply for an extension. There is a part in the act that says, “Well, sure, we'll just pretend that never happened, and we'll give you an extension for the time you were in jail—eight months of your qualifying period”.
Now, when I started passing that around to constituents in my riding, the most popular response was, “You've got to be kidding—that's not fair.” And it isn't fair. Who can find any fairness in a regulation that grants favouritism under the EI Act to someone who commits a crime and goes to jail, as opposed to a hard-working individual who, in this case, took some time off to upgrade her skills? She then found herself in a position where she was suddenly unemployed after being back at work for a short period of time. Lo and behold, under the EI Act, because she wasn't working in the prior 52 weeks, she didn't qualify.
There is nothing wrong with the EI Act as it stands. It works very well for hard-working Canadians. Qualifying is one of the criteria, and there is a benefit period when you can collect, but I was just astounded to see that if you went to jail you could get a free pass on the extensions and the qualifying period. I said, “Well, that's not fair.” A reporter asked me today what this bill was all about and asked if my colleagues and the public as a whole support it. I said, “Well, this bill is about fairness, and what's not to support when it's something about fairness?”
I could tell you about a lot of other situations. In a situation in Quebec recently, a young mother was denied employment insurance after her place of employment went out of business. Because she had just returned from maternity leave and had not worked enough in the past year, she wasn't allowed to apply for an extension. But guess what? Had she gone to jail, she would have been. It's not fair. It's not fair to treat a convicted felon as being in a favoured position as opposed to a hard-working Canadian individual who makes a decision to take time off.
That's the basis of the bill. We want to ensure that convicted felons are under the same regulations as people who obey the law, work hard, and try to contribute to society, people who don't make decisions to break the law and then end up in the courts and possibly in jail.
I think that pretty well capsulizes the bill. I've nicknamed it “the fairness bill”. It's not a bill that's going to change the world. It's not going to change the entire EI Act. But it's going to take out that one portion that gives a convicted felon a privileged position over someone who is law abiding and just seeks to do the right thing.
Mr. Chair, I'm willing to take questions on my bill.