Madam Speaker, today we are talking about the Canadian value of how we take care of each other when we are sick. We are talking about improvements to the employment insurance sickness benefit.
On average, people who claimed sickness benefits in fiscal year 2017-18 used 10 weeks of the benefit and then returned to work. However, quite a large cohort, 36% or about 150,000 Canadians, exhausted their full 15 weeks before they could go back to work. Among those 150,000 Canadians, women and older Canadians were more likely to need more than 15 weeks.
This is a very serious issue facing Canadians who are sick or injured.
Imagine being a single parent and then overnight no longer being able to pay the bills. Nobody needs that kind of pressure while trying to rest and get better.
It is the government’s responsibility to put measures in place to keep the Canadian workforce strong, healthy and productive.
A healthy, strong and productive workforce means a healthy, strong and productive economy.
That is why our government has committed to increasing the sickness benefit from 15 weeks to 26 weeks. This commitment was praised by the Canadian Cancer Society and aligns well with the requests from The Conference Board of Canada and the Multiple Sclerosis Society of Canada to enhance the support of people living with MS.
The main goal of the EI program is to support people and at the same time maintain their connection to the labour market. This is doubly important, as we know that employers face shortages in labour in all sectors across the country. Keeping Canadians connected to active work lives is important both for the well-being of Canadians and for the well-being of our economy.
As the minister responsible for disability inclusion, I attach paramount importance to this matter. Part of my work, under the Accessible Canada Act, is to ensure that barriers faced by persons with disabilities are removed so that they can fully participate in society.
To explain the connection with employment insurance sickness benefits, let me use multiple sclerosis as an example.
Those with multiple sclerosis have what is called an episodic disability. This means that they go through periods when they are well enough to work, and others when that is not the case.
In 2018, we made changes to the employment insurance sickness benefit to allow claimants to use the rules governing work during a benefit period. Workers therefore enjoy greater flexibility in availing themselves of the assistance provided by employment insurance while doing part of their work in the same week.
According to the Conference Board of Canada, if those with multiple sclerosis could remain in or re-enter the workforce more easily, it could increase our economic activity by $1.1 billion annually. That is a win-win situation.
Our government has committed to extending sickness benefits to 26 weeks. I want to impress upon my colleagues the importance of getting this right, of acting from the best evidence.
I encourage the Standing Committee on Human Resources, Skills and Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities to study this matter as soon as possible. We do not want Canadians falling through the cracks.
As I mentioned earlier, we are determined to improve the employment insurance plan so that it better serves employees and employers. We are continuing to work hard to improve the program. I will talk about that now and let my parliamentary secretary add some details shortly.
I am very proud and pleased to say that Canada recently scored 100, a perfect score, on the World Bank's women, business and the law index. This was due in part to our recent reform regarding parental leave benefits that reserve five weeks of paid leave for the second parent, typically the father. With this step, we are ensuring that Canada is a place where everyone can be on equal footing in terms of work.
As Unifor national president Jerry Dias said, “In addition to making it easier for women to return to work this extra leave will help to even out childcare responsibilities and break down gender-based parenting roles.”
Another major improvement was to reduce the time people have to wait before receiving their benefits. In January 2017, we reduced it from two weeks to one week in order to ease the financial burden for those receiving employment insurance benefits. This change puts more than $650 million into the pockets of Canadians each year.
I am also pleased to say that budget 2018 made the 50¢-on-the-dollar rules of the most recent EI working-while-on-claim pilot project permanent and grandfathered claimants who chose to revert to older rules under the most recent pilot project until August 2021.
In budget 2018, we also expanded the pilot project to sickness and maternity benefits, making them more consistent and providing greater flexibility for those who want to return to work while receiving sickness benefits. The new changes make it easier for claimants to remain in the labour force and get through gaps between periods of work.
We have also increased our support for caregivers. We know that millions of Canadians provide informal care and support for critically ill family members. Canadians told us that they want more flexibility and inclusive options to care for and support loved ones.
In budget 2017, we announced special measures to give families greater flexibility by making it easier for caregivers to claim employment insurance benefits. These measures are having a real impact on Canadians' lives.
An example of this is the creation of the employment insurance family caregiver benefit for adults. This new benefit is making a big difference in the lives of many Canadians who work hard, but must also take off work to care for a loved one. For a maximum of 15 weeks, it allows eligible family caregivers to provide care for an adult family member who is critically ill or injured.
I would also like to highlight that for the first time, immediate and extended family members of children who are critically ill now have access to a benefit that was previously available only to parents. This goes beyond immediate family and even relatives. Individuals who are not relatives but considered to be like family, for example, a neighbour, could be eligible to receive the benefit to provide care to a critically ill child. Caregivers can share the available weeks of benefits at the same time or separately.
We estimate that some 22,000 families have received the new EI benefit for family caregivers. These are positive changes that are already benefiting Canadians. We intend to deliver more of the same. We still have a lot to do to ensure that Canadians get the support they need to overcome barriers to full labour market participation.
As I mentioned, in my current role, I have taken on the mantle of further strengthening our employment insurance programs. This means improving our sickness benefit, but it also means making a number of other changes for the better. I will be working collaboratively with my finance and tax colleagues to make maternity and parental benefits tax-free. I will be introducing a 15-week leave for adoptive parents, including for LGBTQ2 families.
I will be working with the Minister of Families, Children and Social Development to create guaranteed paid family leave. I will create a new career insurance benefit for workers who have worked for the same employer for five or more years and lose their job when the business closes.
This new benefit will kick in after employment insurance ends and will not be clawed back if other income is earned. This is essential in a world where jobs change so quickly that, 20 years from now, our kids will have jobs we have not even heard of.
I am tasked with improving the current pilot project for seasonal workers with a permanent program that provides consistent and reliable benefits. I will be working on this over the coming summer.
Lastly, together with my colleague, the Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness, we are creating a new EI disaster assistance benefit. This new benefit will be developed in consultation with experts, workers and employers. It will replace the income that is lost when families need to temporarily stop working to protect their homes or because they need to relocate to safety.
Since we want our improvements to the EI system to be evidence-based, I will be working with my colleagues at Statistics Canada to strengthen the data. With the ever-changing nature of families and work, it is important that we join forces to ensure that Canadians get the support they need.
After all, these supports will not only benefit Canadian workers, who are mothers, fathers, caregivers of children and the elderly, and some who are battling long-term illness in their day-to-day lives; they will also go a long way toward ensuring a stable and thriving economy for our country. That is why we will continue to look for ways to improve the EI system so it can meet the needs of Canadian families and workers at every stage in their career, in sickness and in health.