Parliament Hill is pictured through an iron fence in Ottawa on Thursday, April 4, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

EI benefits for sick workers cost feds $1 billion a year

Extending EI benefits could rise to an extra $1.3 billion five years later

Providing income support for a year to people who are too sick to work would cost the federal government $1 billion more than its current program, the parliamentary spending watchdog said Thursday, adding new numbers to a debate about the future of the four-decade-old benefit.

As is, the benefit available through employment insurance covers just over half of a worker’s earnings for 15 weeks, and nearly four in 10 beneficiaries max out those benefits, according to government figures.

Just over three-quarters of the claimants who use up all their benefits don’t immediately return to work after their 15 weeks are up, parliamentary budget officer Yves Giroux reported, with most staying off the job for another 26 weeks.

READ MORE: Liberals promise tax credit, EI benefit to help workers retrain

Extending coverage to a maximum of 50 weeks would cost about $1.1 billion, rising to an extra $1.3 billion five years later.

EI sickness benefits are the only of the so-called special benefits under the EI program that the Liberals have not amended since coming to office. Maternity and parental benefits and programs for people caring for seriously ill or injured family members have all been expanded.

However, there appears to be all-party support for a motion in the House of Commons to have a committee of MPs study extending the sickness benefit, which hasn’t been updated since its introduction in 1971.

The minister responsible for the program said Thursday that any changes to the benefit need to take into account the growth of private and employer-sponsored insurance and of other public programs.

“Whenever we are talking about this important benefit, we also need to take into account the broader picture and make sure we do this in the best possible way,” Social Development Minister Jean-Yves Duclos said.

Opposition critics say the numbers from Giroux will fuel cross-party talks on ways to address gaps in the system, including the thousands of claimants who go for weeks without income before getting back to work, or don’t qualify for disability pensions through the Canada Pension Plan.

“What’s clear to me … is we need to move beyond the 15 weeks as soon as possible,” said New Democratic Party critic Niki Ashton. “This is a very serious issue for people who live with illnesses and have not been able to access the supports they need.”

Conservative critic Karen Vecchio said MPs need to assess what Canadians want out of the program and also what they’re willing to pay.

“We have to find something that helps Canadians,” she said, adding that “for some families, this is make or break.”

In 2017, the most recent year for which numbers are available, sickness benefits were provided to more than 400,000 claimants at a cost of about $1.6 billion — about one-fifth of all EI claims.

The additional costs to stretch payments to 50 weeks would vary depending on the number of claimants and the average length of time they are off work, from between $899 million and $1.26 billion in the first year, to between $1.06 billion and $1.48 billion after five years.

To pay for it all, Giroux calculates the government would have to raise EI premiums to $1.68 for every $100 of insurable earnings, an increase of six cents.

Marie-Helene Dube, a cancer survivor who has run a campaign called “15weeks” for a decade calling for an extension of the sickness benefit, said workers would spend more on coffee each day than extra premiums.

“I am outraged at this government’s chronic inaction on this issue, despite all of its promises,” she said. “It shows very little respect for the sick citizens who have made contributions (to EI) all their lives.”

READ MORE: Demand for EI sickness benefits on the rise; NDP cites need for update

Workers who qualify for payments must have worked at least 600 hours in the 52 weeks before they filed their claims, the equivalent of about 16 weeks of full-time work.

In a separate report, Giroux estimated that cutting the number of qualifying hours to 360 would allow just over 73,000 more people to access payments and cost the EI program roughly $325 million in the first year. Giroux said this change would require EI premiums to go up by two cents each year.

Jordan Press, The Canadian Press

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