Adrienne Montani: Maternity benefits clawbacks unfair to women

June 20, 2016


by Adrienne Montani

The B.C. Human Rights Tribunal recently gave the green light for a human-rights complaint to be heard on behalf of a mother whose Employment Insurance maternity, parental and medical benefits were deducted from her partner’s disability benefits.

Jess Alford, the mother making the complaint, noted, “My family’s income went down at a time when we needed it the most — all because I had to take time off work to have my child.

“I was forced into a position of choosing to take leave and impoverish my family or return to work immediately following the birth of my child when I wasn’t physically ready.”

In her complaint, Alford alleges that the B.C. government is guilty of serious systemic discrimination against women who become pregnant while working to support a low-income family that relies on disability assistance.

Prior to her maternity leave, Alford was earning $300 to $800 per month to supplement her family’s below-poverty level income on disability assistance, as allowed under provincial regulations.

However, under provincial regulations, the EI benefits she earned from her work are considered “unearned” income. Unearned income is deducted dollar for dollar from the family unit’s disability assistance.

Katie Aldred, another mother of three children with a partner on disability assistance, experienced the same clawback when she earned EI maternity and parental benefits.

She saw her family income drop from just over $3,000 per month to $1,720 per month, leaving them struggling to cover rent and other basic living expenses just as their family expenses increased.

These are just two of the families affected by this short-sighted and discriminatory policy.

Over the past 12 months, the B.C. government clawed back $443,000 in EI maternity and parental benefits from 150 families. That’s an average of just under $3,000 per family.

These families with children are living below the poverty line already. Calling earned EI benefits “unearned” income is patently unfair and the impact on children of plunging them into deeper poverty when their mother must take time off work puts their health and well-being at greater risk.

It also disproportionately discriminates against women, who are the only people who can give birth and claim maternity benefits.

More than 90 per cent of parental benefits in B.C. were claimed by women last year. To be clear, men who work to supplement the disability benefits of a female partner could continue working when a new baby is born to the family.

There are other layers of systemic discrimination at work too.

We know that children in families with female wage-earners are already more likely to live in poverty than children in families with male wage-earners.

Women make up 70 per cent of part-time workers and 60 per cent of minimum-wage earners. We also know that women workers in Canada earn an average of 67 cents for every dollar earned by men on an annual basis. Additionally, women with children earn about 12 per cent less per hour in Canada than childless women.

The B.C. government could stop contributing to women and children’s poverty and save us all the costs of defending this discriminatory policy by doing the right thing now — change the regulations to treat EI maternity and parental benefits as earned income which is exempt from deduction from disability assistance. This is 2016.

Adrienne Montani is provincial coordinator for First Call: B.C. Child and Youth Advocacy Coalition.