Legislation would offer parental benefits to self-employed

TheGlobeandMail.com – News – Legislation would offer parental benefits to self-employed: Plans to be unveiled this week would extend EI program
Published on Sunday, Nov. 01, 2009. Last updated on Monday, Nov. 02, 2009. Shawn McCarthy, Ottawa

The Harper government plans to introduce legislation Tuesday to allow self-employed Canadians to access maternity and parental benefits under the federal employment insurance program.

Under the proposed amendments to the Employment Insurance Act, some 2.7-million self-employed people would be able to join the program and pay roughly half the normal premiums to obtain the special benefits, a senior government source said Sunday.

“Entrepreneurs, trades people and other self-employed Canadians contribute to the prosperity of our country and the economy,” the official said.

“Unfortunately, they have little support to help them with major life events such as giving birth or caring for a new child, and we don’t think this is right. We don’t think they should have to choose between starting a family and starting a business.”

Prime Minister Stephen Harper promised during the 2008 election campaign to provide some EI benefits to the self-employed. The New Democrats have already indicated they support such changes, and the amendment will provide justification for NDP Leader Jack Layton to prop up Mr. Harper’s minority government.

The legislation would allow self-employed – from real estate agents and accountants, to truck drivers and hairdressers – to enroll in the EI program and pay only the employee’s share of the premium.

For 2009, employees pay $1.73 per $100 of earnings up to a maximum of $731.79 for the year, and their employers pay an additional 1.4 times of each worker’s premiums.

To be eligible for 15 weeks of maternity benefits or 35 weeks of parental leave, a self-employed worker must pay into the program for at least a year prior to filing a claim.

And once they opt in and receive benefits, they will not be allowed to opt out, but will have to continue paying premiums.

Quebec workers won’t have access to the federal plan because they are already covered by a provincial benefits program and pay a portion of their EI premiums to the province to cover that cost.

The federal official said it is unclear how many of the 2.7-million self-employed are likely to benefit from the plan, or what it would cost. “It depends on the pick-up,” he said.

The NDP has called for years to changes to the employment insurance plan to allow the self-employed to take time off to care for newborns or adopted children.

The New Democrats have vowed to support the Conservative government in office in order to extend EI coverage, after supporting a bill earlier this fall to provide longer benefit periods for long-tenured workers.

The Liberals had threatened to bring down the Harper minority government last June over employment insurance, specifically their demand that the government extend benefit periods for workers in regions that typically had low unemployment. Those employees have to work longer to qualify for EI than counterparts in regions with traditionally high jobless rates.

The Conservatives have argued it would simply be too expensive to make the broad-based changes that had been demanded by the Liberals.

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