By: Pamela Bowes, M.Ed.  Manager, Money Matters and Workplace Programs

The Employment Insurance (EI) Compassionate Care Benefit offers partial income replacement for people who are employed and need to leave work to care for a gravely ill family member.

Here are some of the present facts about the program:

  • The employee must have worked a minimum of 600 hours in the last 52 weeks
  • The gravely ill family member must be at risk of death within the next 26 weeks
  • The physician treating the gravely ill family member must complete a medical form verifying the situation, and the patient must sign a consent form
  • The employee must serve a 2 week waiting period, and is then eligible for a maximum benefit of 6 weeks, being paid 55% or their previous earnings to a maximum of $524/week
  • The employee accessing the benefit can be a family member, or someone who is considered like a family member – possibly a neighbour or friend

It is important to note that there is both a waiting period and a processing period. The waiting period is for the first two weeks after the employee leaves work, but the actual processing time, until payment is received, is potentially six to eight weeks.

The announcement is that the length of Compassionate Care benefits will be extended from six weeks to six months, commencing January 1, 2016 following the federal election in fall 2015. For those caring for a gravely ill family member, the extension will prove very valuable. They will have more time to provide support, and their employer must hold their job for that full time period. The Wellspring Money Matters program has informed many caregivers, spouses and partners about this program, and frequently hears how short six weeks is, especially when trying to support a loved one. This extension will help those folks.

But make no mistake; this EI program expansion is not hitting the mark. Recent statistics from EI indicate that 67% of people are accessing EI because they have been laid off, 20% for either maternity or parental benefits, 8.1% for sickness benefits, and less than .1% are applicants for Compassionate Care benefits. Sure, an extension of the program might mean more people will access it.

But many cancer patients, who are too sick to work – needing an unknown period of time away from work – are eligible for a maximum of 15 weeks of Sickness benefits. That’s nothing when facing one or two years away from work and this is the only program that can be of help. In my opinion, one of the best ways to better support people with a cancer diagnosis, or any illness for that matter, is to extend the length of EI Sickness benefits. But that will not happen, at least not in the foreseeable future, despite years of concerted advocacy for change. And, if the Conservatives are not re-elected, is that the end of the expansion? Only if the new party in power agrees to follow through with the promise. Otherwise, this is all for not.