Months after having their babies, some parents are still waiting to receive benefits from Canada’s employment insurance program, which has been overloaded during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s been a complete financial change and strain for us,” said Alanna Los of Brandon, Man., who had her second child July 1. “I’ve been literally on the phone every day almost for the past three months.”
Normally, people applying for parental benefits should expect to wait only about one month for their first payment, according to the federal government’s website. But with millions of Canadians unemployed or under-employed during the pandemic, strain on the employment insurance (EI) system is likely causing delays.
While she was pregnant, Los was on sick leave from her job as a nurse after she was rear-ended in a car crash. Two days after her daughter was born, she called Service Canada to switch over her sick leave payments to her parental leave benefits. The agent with whom she spoke confirmed the change was made and said she was approved, Los said.
Months later, Los said, she hasn’t received any support from the government.
She has had to dip into her savings to pay bills, she said.
Los isn’t alone. When she posted about her issues on a Facebook group, several mothers shared similar stories, she said.
“This is a system you’re supposed to be dependant on, but it’s not there for moms right now,” Los said.
‘I’m completely broke’
Leta Jonasson had her son Aug. 12, and has maxed out her credit card waiting for her parental benefit since his birth, she said.
“It’s been pretty stressful,” said the Winnipeg mom, whose spouse was also laid off during the pandemic.
Jonasson, 26, who also has another child, worked as a retail store manager, but she’s been off since March because of the pandemic. She had been receiving support from the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), but those payments stopped when she applied for parental benefits, she said.
“I’m completely broke until I get my maternity leave benefit,” Jonasson said.
She said she feels lucky to have family and a partner who support her as much as possible and can’t imagine what others who don’t have that safety net would do.
“If I didn’t have their help, I’d really be in a bad spot because of bills and everything,” Jonasson said.
Two mothers in Ontario also told CBC News they’ve been waiting more than two months for their parental benefits.
CBC News reached out to Service Canada, but the agency declined to answer questions about ongoing service delays.
“The department understands the difficulties that any delay in benefit payments can cause to claimants and their families, and is working to address the issue as soon as possible,” spokesperson Marie-Eve Sigouin-Campeau said.
‘System is not designed for this’
Service delays are likely due to the strain the government is under having to pay emergency benefits to four million Canadians who are unemployed or under-employed because of the pandemic, one expert says.
At the time, the government said it was working to increase the number of agents taking calls and pursuing additional measures to increase the automation of calls.
There’s likely still a backlog in trying to deal with the high number of people collecting CERB, EI and other government benefits, said Moshe Lander, a lecturer in the department of economics at Concordia University in Montreal.
“I think it’s just the nature of trying to process this many claims in extremely irregular circumstances,” said Lander. “The system is not designed for this. And so, of course, it’s not going to work properly.”
Bureaucratic hurdles are putting added stress on a demographic that’s already facing a great deal of hardship because of the pandemic, said Katherine Scott of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.
Women have been disproportionately affected by the economic fallout of the pandemic, and months after the onset of the crisis their return to employment lags behind that of men, Scott wrote in a report earlier this month.
“Women continue to be unemployed in greater numbers and are still working reduced hours in the jobs they do have,” she said. “This has certainly been a she-cession, as it’s been coined.”
WATCH | Manitoba mothers on the financial impact of waiting for parental benefits:
On top of that, the glitches with accessing CERB, EI and parental benefits mean some people are falling through the cracks, she said.
“It’s just crazy-making in the face of acute stress for many, many families,” Scott said.
Scott said the delays could persist or even increase as the government transitions from CERB to EI.
“The stress on the system will actually magnify,” she said.
“If you’re an expectant parent, you’ve got to wonder, will your claim proceed in a timely fashion? And it may well not.”
For parents such as Jonasson and Los, that means more calls to Ottawa, and more stress on their families.