That, in the opinion of the House, the Standing Committee on Human Resources, Skills and Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities should examine the possibility and practicality of extending the maximum number of weeks of Employment Insurance sick benefits for those with long term illnesses; and that the Committee report its findings and recommendations to the House no later than six months from the adoption of this motion.
He said: Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise in the chamber tonight to speak on my private member's motion, Motion No. 201, to extend employment insurance benefits, as extending employment insurance benefits is not only the right thing to do but the smart thing to do.
I will start by expressing my appreciation to all of my colleagues in the House who have already expressed to me their support for the extension of these benefits. We all know someone who has experienced financial hardship when recovering from a debilitating disease. Anyone who knows me knows that I have always been an advocate for this extension. I put it forward in the House many years ago and I am putting it forward again today. I see all too often at home in Cape Breton how diseases can cripple people financially when their EI benefits run out.
Sickness benefits were provided in the Employment Insurance Act in the 1970s by government as a compassionate option for Canadians who have to leave their jobs temporarily due to illness. The financial support is intended to allow individuals to focus on their treatment. Current legislation allows recipients up to a maximum of only 15 weeks. The length of recipients' terms of sick benefits is decided by health care professionals. Many aspects of the El Act have changed since it was passed. However, the duration period has gone unchanged.
Many of us in the chamber have constituents, friends and family members who have experienced financial hardship as they recovered from serious diseases such as cancer, heart problems or respiratory issues. Like other members, my constituency office in Cape Breton sees this happen all too often. People apply for El sick benefits and receive the full 15 weeks, but find themselves incapable of going back to work after those 15 weeks.
Think about it. It could be a nurse, teacher, bus driver, fish plant worker, factory worker or construction worker. It does not matter. Let us say a 40-year-old has paid into the system for 20 years and gets prostate or breast cancer or whatever, and it is curable. Most cancers are curable now, but it takes a year. There are no payments after 15 weeks. The person may have to sell the car or remortgage the house. That individual paid into the EI system for 20 years while being a productive citizen and will be going back into the workforce.
These Canadians, through no fault of their own, as I said, have to remortgage their homes to get by financially. They use up all of their savings, if they have any, and continue paying for everything else. We are hearing more and more from medical professionals and the studies they conduct that stress has a serious negative effect on our bodies. It would certainly have a negative impact on a person's effort to recover from a prolonged or serious ailment.
In my hometown of Cape Breton, a local doctor, Dr. Ron MacCormick, an oncologist, attests that it can take at least one year after cancer treatment before a patient starts to regain energy. In fact, most oncologists will say that treatment, surgery, chemotherapy or radiation takes one year. The harsh reality is that cancer and other serious illnesses do not discriminate. Canadians of all ages are attacked by disease. The unfortunate part is that these people still have lots of productive work years left ahead of them, but if we are not giving people proper time to recover, they may even relapse upon returning to work.
Canada is known as one of the most progressive countries in the world. However, it is less known that our country also has one of the shortest periods of sickness protection in the modern world. Many European countries see the benefit in bridging. They find that bridging workers when they suffer from illness is a net benefit to their society. It is an investment. These people do not get lost in the welfare system or the pension system. When we bridge them financially through tough periods of sickness to health, they come back to work and contribute to society.
Increasing the amount of weeks that sick Canadians could receive does not mean they will use all those weeks. It simply gives them the option to use them if they are needed in recovery. We owe this to Canadians.
In fact, The Globe and Mail reported last year that almost four out of every 10 applicants are maxing out these sick benefits and the demand for El sick benefits hit a 10-year high in 2015.
I would put to the House that the spirit and intent back when the Employment Insurance Act sickness benefits provisions were first enacted were to help people through such hard times. Times have changed. There seems to be more people with cancer. The reality is that more people are getting cured. Therefore, we have to change the act accordingly and ensure that these people have the proper transition back to their normal lives.
Our government has made some positive changes to the El act since 2015, including changing the rules for regular benefits, extending parental leave to 18 months, introducing an option for five weeks of leave for parents adopting children and making compassionate care leave more accessible. However, we need to focus on sick benefits.
Just this past December, at the Standing Committee on Human Resources, Skills and Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities, Mr. Michael Prince, a professor of social policy at the University of Victoria, stated that an extension of the 15 weeks to 26 weeks is a sound investment in Canadians. He said this would be “an investment in early interventions and job retention, so that these people would not be opting [to totally leave the workforce]. They would be continuing to work and making some premium contributions.”
I also appreciate the positive comments from all sides of the House during that committee.
For example, there were positive comments made by the member for Battlefords—Lloydminster. She said, “When people are denied by Service Canada, how is that spoken to them? Is there compassion...?”
The member for North Okanagan—Shuswap, at the human resources committee on the same day, asked about the type of assistance we can look at providing for employers who are making those accommodations to try to keep employees who are suffering from disorders.
The member for Fort McMurray—Cold Lake, at that same committee, said that when it comes to applying for a job, “we have to ensure that people with...disabilities in general, are not turned away.”
It is great to see that we have cross-support for this, because out of the 333 members of Parliament we have, I do not think there is one member's constituency office that does not see people coming in with this happening. Therefore, we all know it is a problem and we should fix it.
There remains a misconception that people who have maximized their El sick benefits can simply apply for Canada pension plan disability benefits. As many members know, the criteria for this program are very strict and most patients are denied because they are not considered 100% disabled. The small numbers of those who meet the criteria are faced with a three-month long application process. Then there is a long waiting period before they actually receive payment. On top of this harsh criteria for the Canada pension plan disability benefits, not all employers offer a long-term disability program. We have to help these people within that one year. Therefore, on top of the harsh criteria for the Canada pension disability, we have to have something else.
For nearly a decade, one-third of Canadians who claim sick benefits are maxing out their 15 weeks. That averages out to roughly 135,000 people in 2016-17. I believe the consistency in these numbers shows that this program is failing Canadians.
Too many are facing unnecessary financial stress at a time when they should be directing 100% of their energies toward battling their ailments and recovering. We just have to think about the worry and concern a person who finds out they have an ailment like this has. They should not be concerned that they cannot buy groceries, pay the phone bill or drive their kids around. No Canadian should be left trying to figure out where they are going to get the money to pay for all these things. We should be helping them.
There is a need for this legislation. The job of health professionals, associations and organizations is to make people better. Our health system is there to make people better. Our job is to help people financially when they are being treated. Employees and employers are paying into this system. Employees want to get back to work and employers need them back to work. We have to help them get through that.
I would like to finish off with a few points. Like I said, the employment insurance fund is funded by employees and employers. It is their money. A healthy nation is a working, contributing nation. These Canadians have paid into this program their whole working lives. It is our turn to take care of them when they need it most.
Increasing the number of weeks sick Canadians can receive does not mean they will use them all. It simply gives them the option to use them if they need them for their recovery. Who knows? After 20 weeks, they might be good to go back to work part time. Things might be okay, but they should not have to worry when they get to 15 weeks. A lot of times, treatment does not start right when they are diagnosed and not feeling well. It could take five weeks to start treatment.
This motion is not a partisan issue. It is about dignity for sick Canadians. It is about changing this system from a one-size-fits-all approach. It is not only the right thing to do, but it is the smart thing to do. I hope my colleagues in the House will support my motion when it comes before the House.