Leaders from CUPE, the NDP, the Canadian Labour Congress and Unifor, along with impacted workers, held a press conference today to call for vital reforms in Canada’s Employment Insurance, EI, system to better support women.

The EI system offers two main benefits: regular benefits for job loss, and special benefits for significant life events, such as maternity leave. Current policies prevent workers from applying their insurable hours towards both benefit types if they’ve taken maternity or parental leave and impose a 50-week cap on combined benefits. This policy disproportionately affects women, especially in cases of job loss before, during or just after maternity leave, by limiting their access to comprehensive EI support.

NDP MP Daniel Blaikie (Elmwood—Transcona), CUPE Senior Economist Angella MacEwen and former CUPE member Katie Bowes, who was directly affected by this policy, provided compelling evidence and personal stories to emphasize the critical need for change.

Impacted worker Katie Bowes opened the press conference by sharing her personal struggle. “I was laid off in November 2023, four months after returning from maternity leave,” she explained. “When I began my application for employment insurance, I was shocked to learn that I did not qualify for EI benefits. There were five of us who were laid off, and I was the only one who did not qualify for EI. Nobody should have to be afraid that, if they lose their job, EI won’t be there for them because they took time to be with a new baby.”

Addressing the issue from a policy perspective, MP Daniel Blaikie criticized the systemic discrimination underlying current EI regulations. “Denying women access to employment insurance during a lay off for no other reason than that they accessed maternity benefits is unfair, plain and simple,” he stated. “We should be doing more to value the unpaid caregiving work that so many women do, not punishing them for it.”

Fortunately, as CUPE Senior Economist Angella MacEwen pointed out, this is an easy problem to fix. “Our analysis shows that with modest investment, we can significantly improve the EI system’s responsiveness to women workers’ needs,” she said. “By allowing the combination of regular and special benefits up to 104 weeks, and recognizing insurable hours for both claims, we can make a substantial difference in the lives of countless families across Canada.”

The press conference followed a decision by the Social Security Tribunal Appeal Division, which highlighted the discriminatory nature of the 50-week limit and placed the responsibility on Parliament to enact reforms. The speakers urged the Liberal government to fulfill its promises on gender equity and implement meaningful changes in the 2024 federal budget, extending the combined benefit duration to 104 weeks and allowing insurable hours to count towards both benefit types.

CUPE’s National Secretary-Treasurer Candace Rennick strongly affirmed these calls for change, pressing the government for immediate reforms to the EI system. “Action is long overdue,” she said. “In today’s world, no one should lose EI benefits just because they took maternity or parental leave. These reforms are crucial to provide fair support to women workers and ensure families across Canada can access the help they need, when they need it.”