Mr. Speaker, I will be sharing my time with the member for Niagara Centre.
I am pleased to participate in the debate on the opposition motion on employment insurance and sick benefits.
For starters, I want to say that our government is not blind to the financial difficulties that Canadians may face during the most challenging times of their lives. On the contrary, we take them very seriously. Health problems can change a person's ability to earn a living at any time.
We know that far too many Canadians are coping with serious illnesses, and are worried about being able to get the treatments they need and ending up relying on their families. A serious health problem can disrupt all aspects of their lives, whether it is a chronic or life-threatening illness, such as cancer, mental health illness, stroke, heart attack, etc.
We know that workers and their families face difficult, stressful situations because of this, particularly if they are also dealing with financial burdens. That is why we made changes to the employment insurance plan to make it more responsive to Canadians' actual circumstances.
First, I would like to highlight the employment insurance sickness benefit, which is an important measure supporting Canadians who are unable to work because of illness, injury or quarantine. It allows workers time to restore their health so that they can return to work.
Today, under the Employment Insurance Act, eligible claimants can receive sickness benefits for a maximum period of 15 weeks. Recipients have the flexibility to use their 15 weeks of sickness benefits during the 52-week benefit period. For example, in 2017-18, a total of approximately $1.7 billion in sickness benefits was paid to over 412,000 claimants.
Of that number, 64% of recipients did not use the full 15 weeks of benefits to which they were entitled. That being said, some recipients use up 15 weeks before they are able to return to work, and we are sensitive to the experiences of these Canadians and their families. That is why our government is committed to extending the EI sickness benefits from 15 weeks to 26 weeks in order to help workers pay the bills while they rest and recover.
The proposed extension would support Canadians who are diagnosed with a serious illness like cancer and who need to take time off from their jobs to receive treatment. Sickness benefits are a short-term income replacement measure for temporary absences from work.
It is important to note that in cases of chronic and long-term illness, workers also have other financial support measures at their disposal; for example, Canada pension plan disability benefits, private insurance plan benefits and support from provinces and territories.
Since 2016, our government has improved the flexibility of the employment insurance special benefits, which include maternity leave, parental benefits, sickness benefits, compassionate care benefits and family care benefits. Today, millions of Canadians provide informal care and support for critically ill family members. Canadians told us what they wanted, and we found ways of being more flexible and more inclusive for all families.
We announced special measures in budget 2017 to make it easier for caregivers to access EI benefits and give families more flexibility. These measures are making a real difference in the lives of Canadians.
One example is the creation of the new employment insurance family care benefit for adults.
This new benefit has made a huge difference in the lives of many hard-working Canadians who must take time off work to care for a loved one. This benefit of up to 15 weeks allows caregivers to provide care for a critically ill or injured adult family member.
I would also like to point out that, for the first time, immediate and extended family members of children who are critically ill have access to a maximum of 35 weeks of benefits, which was previously accessible only to parents.
This goes beyond the immediate family and relatives to individuals who are not relatives but are considered to be like family. For example, neighbours could be eligible to receive the benefits to provide care for a critically ill child. Caregivers can share the available weeks of benefits at the same time or at a separate time. It is estimated that approximately 22,000 families have accessed the new EI caregiving benefit since its creation.
Another very important aspect applies to caregivers of both children and adults. More specialists, family physicians and even nurse practitioners will now be authorized to sign medical certificates confirming that a child or adult is critically ill or injured.
This also applies to caregivers who access compassionate care benefits while providing care, including end-of-life care, for a child or adult family member.
This change makes the administrative process easier while allowing Canadians to focus on what really matters, being at the side of their loved ones. Every Canadian situation is unique, with different family and work needs, but every Canadian family deserves our support. That is why the EI benefit is now more flexible and more inclusive for Canadians.
In conclusion, what matters most to us is family. When a family member needs help, people must be able to provide care, and we must support these caregivers. We are committed to offering EI benefits that are more flexible, inclusive and, of course, accessible.
Our government promised Canadians that we would support parents and caregivers, and that is exactly what we are doing.