For the past three weeks, Lindsey Northrup has received half of her parental leave benefits, which were already around half of what she earns while working.
“Some of my bills haven’t been paid – they’re going to be late,” Northrup said. “It’s frustrating and it’s not my fault.”
Northrup lives in Bloomfield, New Brunswick, with her husband and eight-month-old son. She took maternity leave from her job as a dental hygienist at the end of last summer.
She received a letter in March informing her that she had an outstanding debt of $2,000 from the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB).
Northrup said she did not expect to have to repay the benefit – shortly after the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020 she was fired due to lack of work and qualified for the benefit . She stopped receiving payments after returning to work in June 2020.
In November 2021, Federal Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough released a statement saying anyone who applied for the benefit before June 14, 2020 through Service Canada received an “advance” payment of $2,000.
Those who were ineligible or had not collected CERB for less than 20 weeks would have an outstanding debt balance, the statement said.
After receiving the notice of debt in the mail, Northrup called the number on the letter to make a payment agreement.
“Definitely disagree with that”
Northrup asked if she could pay off the debt when she returned to work in September. When the government worker said she couldn’t do that, Northrup agreed to a monthly payment of $32.
When she logged into her online banking app the following month, she found that her parents’ EI payment was more than $500 missing.
She called the same number she had before and, after a long wait, an employee answered.
“He told me the deal was to be for 50% of my paycheck … plus $32 a month,” Northrup said. “I was definitely not okay with that.”
The whole experience was “incredibly frustrating,” Northrup said, adding that it was passed on over the phone.
“I wrote it all down on a note just so I could get a good streak in my head of what happened,” she said. “But it was a bit confusing.”
In an emailed statement, Employment and Social Development Canada said what happened to Northrup is normal practice for collecting EI debts, including CERB.
“As part of the Government of Canada’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, ESDC has suspended Employment Insurance debt collection beginning in March 2020 to ease any financial pressure on Canadian families” , the statement said.
The hiatus ended on March 21.
Northrup knows she is not alone. Her friend, Marissa Keleher, also had her parental benefits cut last month.
“It happens to me and at least one of my friends that I know,” Northrup said. “How many other people have this happening to them?”
Employment and Social Development Canada said the number of people whose maternity or parental benefits have been reduced due to CERB debt is not readily available.
Parental allowance as care policy
The letters Northrup and Keleher received about a month before their first deductions included a notice that their EI debt could be recovered through their benefits.
But Andrea Doucet, a researcher in women’s and gender studies at Brock University, said she could see how a new parent would assume the clawback wouldn’t apply to them — parental benefits aren’t often thought of as benefits. employment.
“It’s a big miscommunication,” said Doucet, who also holds a Canada Research Chair in Gendered Work and Care. “People call them maternity and parental benefits.”
She added that while the federal parental leave policy has made progress on gender equality, it lags behind Scandinavian countries in its treatment of claimants as social workers rather than unemployed.
“[If] it’s a policy of care, so maybe there should be more care attached to it and recognize that it’s not the same as [employment] Assurance.”
Doucet said more flexibility should be given to new parents when paying off debts.
“Maybe when people go back to work, they can repay some of it,” Doucet said. “But it shouldn’t affect families when they’re already living on a reduced income and…caring for a baby.”
Keleher said she had to fax a dozen documents and answer several questions from government employees to prove she was experiencing “financial hardship” in order to qualify for a payment plan.
When Keleher checked her bank account earlier this month and noticed her last parental benefit payment had been cut in half, she was shocked.
Keleher lives in Saint John with her husband and seven-month-old son and has been on maternity leave after running a cafe starting in the fall. The family recently bought a house and Keleher said their bills have gone up.
She had also received a notice informing her of her CERB debt. She said she was eligible for the benefit but expected to have to repay the first $2,000.
However, she did not know that she would be recouped through her bi-weekly payments.
“I just couldn’t believe they would do this,” Keleher said. “We just thought it was a bit aggressive, especially since I already earn so little money compared to what I usually earn.”
Keleher has since negotiated a $60 garnishment but has yet to receive payment reflecting that amount.