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BC Government headed to the courtroom over parental leave cuts

Last Updated May 18, 2016 at 5:38 pm PST

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Ninety-two per cent of people who claim parental EI are women

SOOKE (NEWS 1130) – The BC Government will have to defend one of its disability payment clawbacks in front of the Human Rights Tribunal. A Vancouver Island couple believes the province is discriminating against women by making deductions from disability payments when one spouse is on parental leave.

Jess Alford from Sooke worked part-time at a bookstore while her husband was on disability. When she had her third baby, she took maternity leave and started receiving EI. The province clawed back that amount from her husband’s disability payments.

Laura Johnston with the Community Legal Assistance Society is representing Alford. She says this violates human rights standards because it singles women out.

“EI maternity and parental benefits exist as a modest wage replacement for women during the time that they need away from the workforce. The EI clawback, therefore, has a disproportionate impact on women. It forces women into further poverty. One of the ramifications of that is that children and the members of families where there’s a female wage earner are also impacted by that.”

Johnston says this means if a female is the wage earner, her family will be in a worse financial position than if a man were the one working. Johnston adds 92 per cent of people who claim parental EI are women.

Johnston says the NDP’s opposition critic has raised the case in the Legislature. She says the Ministry of Social Development has been aware of the problem for some time and has not made any changes. She hopes the province will adjust the policy rather than going through this lengthy legal process, something she thinks would be fairly inexpensive to do for the 150 or so people in Jess Alford’s situation.

It’s clear in Social Development Ministry policy that EI payments are deducted from disability payments while modest wages are not. Changes have been made in the past to adjust disability payment rules when something less-than-equitable comes up. Changes in the 2015 budget saw an end to the clawback of some benefits for low-income single parents receiving child support.

Minister Michelle Stillwell says in a statement they are always looking for ways to improve policies. She says disability payments are meant to be a last resort once all other avenues of income have been explored. She suggests families like Alford’s rely on extra benefits for families with children along with federal and provincial tax breaks.

There’s no date set yet for the hearing.