New mom awaits employment-insurance benefits fix delayed by campaign

Amanda Elkington, 29, at home with her three-month old, Wren in Cayuga, Ont., Monday, Sept. 13, 2021. Elkington has been fighting for her full employment benefits while on maternity leave after her workplace was closed due to COVID-19. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Peter Power

OTTAWA - Amanda Elkington had a roller-coaster ride of a pregnancy through two school shutdowns in Ontario as the province grappled with the second and third waves of COVID-19.

Each time, the child-care worker went on employment insurance, all the while envisioning a parental leave with her first child that would be spent doing all the activities she had done with young students in her before and after-school program.

The vision has changed as she faces the possibility of being cut off from her benefits in December.

Her situation isn't unique, as part of a problem the government was made aware of in the spring. But her story also highlights how a pause on policy-making during election campaigns can leave people like Elkington and other mothers in limbo.

"It just is unfortunate, because I have provided care for everyone else's kids for the last 10 years, and now, finally, I get to be off with my own kid and Service Canada is just denying me that time," the 29-year-old said.

"That (time), it's crucial, and the time I do have I'm spending stressing."

Eligible workers need a minimum number of hours on the job to qualify for employment insurance benefits, including maternity and parental leave. The threshold is generally around 600 hours, but the federal government dropped the figure to 420 during the pandemic.

When a new mother receiving regular EI benefits gives birth, they have to file a new claim for maternity and parental benefits, meaning they generally have to meet the hours requirement anew even though they may have been unable to work because of the pandemic like Elkington.

Elkington first went on EI in late December 2020 when the Ontario government announced it was extending school closures coming out of winter break.

She stopped receiving benefits when schools reopened in February, leaving unused weeks on her claim, but started receiving benefits anew through when schools closed again in April for the remainder of the school year.

It was then that she was told about having to get her hours to qualify for her parental leave, or be cut off come December. The reason is that the government had given her a one-time hours top-up designed to help people qualify for EI after losing work due to COVID-19.

Elkington thought she had enough hours to qualify. Even if she didn't, the top-up could only be used once, meaning she had to earn the hours anew if she wanted parental leave.

The hole in the social safety net was flagged to the Liberals in May and the government vowed to find a patch.

The department that oversees EI, Employment and Social Development Canada, pointed to the 420-hour requirement and existing rules on filing claims when asked what changes have been made.

The various MP offices Elkington contacted told her that any workaround would require a change in policy, and that generally can't happen during an election campaign when the government goes into caretaker mode.

Most policy-making comes to a halt and won't start up again until after the election, and likely not until after a new cabinet is sworn in, which could be weeks after election day.

Elkington said anyone else she has contacted for help has been at a loss to say what she could do.

Now she is worried about either losing her benefits in December to stay home with Wren, which would make it difficult to pay the bills, or go back to work and be stretched to pay high daycare fees, if she can find a space at all.

"I'm scrambling," Elkington said. "Plan B, I guess go back to work, but I don't know what to do with (Wren), and that's not a very good feeling."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 14, 2021.

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