Fix on Friday to finally let moms-to-be receive CERB, Qualtrough tells MPs

Expecting mothers who lost their jobs due to COVID-19 in March, and have since been unable to access emergency federal aid, will become eligible Friday for a key benefit -- without jeopardizing their parental leave.

The government is implementing a fix on May 8 so that pregnant women can finally receive the Canada Emergency Response Benefit, Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough said Tuesday.

The issue stems from a flaw in which women who identified as pregnant on their employment insurance applications in March weren't automatically moved over to the pandemic benefit when it launched about one month ago.

Instead, some women entitled to CERB benefits were put on EI instead, which could have impacted their parental leave time, while others simply didn't receive financial help at all.

Qualtrough told MPs in an email that expectant mothers who haven't received the CERB will begin to receive backdated payments in the days following the fix.

Those who received less than $500 per week in EI benefits will receive a retroactive top up, and anyone who earned more won't have payments clawed back.

She also promised that affected mothers-to-be who received EI won't have those weeks docked from their maternity and parental leave entitlements, meaning they won't have to return to work months before their infant is a year old.

"The biggest thing for me is that my maternity time isn't cut off," said Erin Smith, 34, who is expecting her first child in July.

Maternity and parental benefits are the only part of the EI system still operating during the pandemic. Everyone else in need of aid is receiving the 16-week CERB.

Since it became available on April 6 and through to the start of this week, 7.49 million people have received the $2,000-a-month benefit that goes to anyone who either lost a job, earns under $1,000, or whose job prospects have been affected due to COVID-19.

Figures posted Tuesday show the government has paid out $27.72 billion in taxable benefits through the program that has a budget of $35 billion.

When the issue of pregnant women not being paid first reached federal officials, they realized a technological fix wasn't that easy. The guts of the EI system is 46 years old and isn't easily changed.

For women like Smith, federal officials planned to put them on EI as an interim measure while their files were moved over to the CERB, and then eventually moved automatically to maternity benefits.

Smith was laid off in mid-March as public health restrictions forced non-essential businesses to close.

The resident of Salt Spring Island, B.C., spent hours on hold trying to get through to Service Canada to resolve her case. After three weeks, she finally got through and started receiving EI on April 20.

"I'm never not grateful for what even EI is giving me," she said, noting she had help from friends and family in between.

"It's just when you plan these things you're wanting that precious time with your little one and to have that kind of in jeopardy on top of everything else ... it's been a different situation than I thought I would be going into."

Conservative employment critic Dan Albas said he heard many of the same concerns from women -- and raised them to Qualtrough directly -- who on Tuesday were breathing a sigh of relief the situation is being resolved.

"It's hard enough to have a child during a pandemic. It's even more difficult when you don't have supports," he said. "The most important thing here is there is a fix coming."

Still being worked out is how to ensure pregnant women who have lost jobs due to the pandemic can earn enough hours to qualify for EI when their child is born. A committee of MPs was told last week that officials are trying to make sure a change to help affected women qualify doesn't risk other beneficiaries in the system.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 5, 2020.

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