Monday, December 8, 2014

Government pays some sick moms but not others in multimillion-dollar lawsuit

Calgary mother Carissa Kasbohm and her 4-year-old son Castiel. Kasbohm was denied EI sickness benefits when she was on maternity leave in 2012 despite 2002 legislation that was supposed to extend to women in her situation and a 2010 ruling confirming that fact. Torstar News Service 
Torstar News Service
Ottawa has quietly paid EI sickness benefits to some women who fell ill during maternity leave while continuing to fight a multi-million-dollar class action lawsuit against others, Torstar News Service has learned.

Roughly 350 women who launched appeals in 2012 and 2013 have been paid, according to government documents filed in the class action certification to be heard in federal court beginning Dec. 16.

Calgary mother Carissa Kasbohm, 30, who developed a serious blood illness while on maternity leave in 2010, wonders why the government has paid some women and not her.

“It makes me upset,” said Kasbohm, who figures she is owed about $4,100.

“It’s good that they are getting the money that they deserve, but it makes me wonder why I am not entitled to it. Why am I still getting messed around? Why haven’t I got paid yet?”

Liberal Party social development critic Roger Cuzner says the revelation raises serious questions about why the government continues to fight the class action suit.

“Instead of paying sick moms, our tax dollars are paying lawyers,” said Cuzner (Cape Breton—Canso).

“It’s appalling that this government continues to fight parents, to deny them benefits, when they know they’ve had a legitimate right to receive these benefits since 2002,” he said.

A spokesperson for Employment and Social Development Canada said the government could not comment on the case as it is before the courts.

Kasbohm is one of as many as 60,000 mothers whose EI sickness benefits have been denied since 2002 and who stand to benefit in the class action suit launched in January 2012.

The EI legislation was changed in 2002 to extend the benefit to working women who become ill during pregnancy or while on maternity and parental leave.

The amendment allows parents to stack sickness benefits onto maternity/parental benefits. If a parent (usually a woman) becomes sick while on maternity or parental leave, she can apply for a maximum of 15 weeks of sickness benefits. Once those benefits are paid, the maternity or parental leave resumes.

While the government paid sickness benefits to women who were pregnant, EI officials said none of the mothers who became ill while on maternity and parental leave were eligible because of a “catch-22” clause in the law that required them to be “otherwise available for work.” Technically, mothers on maternity leave are caring for their babies and not available for work, so their sickness claims were denied.

But in 2011, Toronto mother Natalya Rougas appealed and won in a ruling that advised the government to either order EI staff to ignore the offending clause or rewrite the legislation.

In November 2012, the Conservatives introduced the Helping Families in Need Act that removed the clause. But the government continued to fight cancer survivor Jane Kittmer of Stratford who won a second ruling in support of the 2002 law the following month.

The Conservatives’ new law took effect in March 2013. But as Torstar News Service reported, they continued to fight Kittmer.

During a grilling in the House of Commons, Prime Minister Stephen Harper assured Canadians that “the government is exploring ways that this matter can be addressed and resolved.”

Kittmer eventually got her money. And so did many others, according to the court documents. But the class action continues.

Lawyer Stephen Moreau, who is handling the case, says the women who have not been paid are just as worthy.

“These are real people. It’s not just numbers,” he said.

Kasbohm ended up in hospital for three months after her son, Castiel, was born. She says she still feels guilty that she wasn’t able to breastfeed and bond with him during his earliest days.

“I felt like a failure as a mother,” said the former restaurant kitchen manager who is still unable to work due to the lingering effects of chemotherapy and other drugs used to treat the rare illness.

EI sickness benefits would have come in handy when her marriage collapsed and she went bankrupt, she added.

“That money would definitely have helped me with payments to avoid bankruptcy,” she said. “But instead I had nothing.”

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