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Bringing EI to self-employed tricky task Add to ...

On Parliament Hill, most everyone agrees that self-employed people like Lainey Bonsell should be able to tap into parental benefits when they decide to start a family.

But that's easier said than done.

Ms. Bonsell, 29, is a real estate agent in Toronto's Beaches neighbourhood, expecting her first baby at the end of November.

Because she's self-employed, she isn't eligible for the employment insurance payments that are sent automatically to other new parents who are considered employees.

Instead, she's been saving for a couple of years so she can afford to take two months off when her baby arrives.

Like a wide range of advocates and politicians, Ms. Bonsell thinks she should at least have the choice to collect benefits during her maternity leave.

Human Resources Minister Diane Finley is poised to table a bill soon that would allow self-employed people access to a plan that would pay them EI benefits after having babies.

"It really would be nice to have that option," Ms. Bonsell said.

Exactly how she and others like her should be granted the benefit, and who should pay for it, however, are far more contentious questions.

The bill would extend benefits to a growing group of people: more and more women in particular are setting up businesses of their own.

The number of self-employed women in Canada grew by 8.4 per cent between 2001 and 2006, according to the last census, and by an enormous 234 per cent between 1981 and 2006.

But they struggle to keep their businesses going, care for their babies and pay the bills all at once - a fact politicians of all stripes have recognized.

Fixing the problem, though, is tricky.

"I think it should be done, but it depends on how it can be done. That's the big problem," said Sylvain Schetagne, senior economist at the Canadian Labour Congress.

Should participation in the plan be voluntary or mandatory? Should it be self-financing, or cross-subsidized by premiums from other employees and employers? Should the government kick in money from general revenues? If not, won't premiums be so high as to be prohibitive?

"We're supporting self-employed people to be able to have parental leave. It's how we draft the bill that's in question," said MP Yvon Godin, the NDP's critic on EI.

"Will it be the other workers who have to pay for it? That's my concern and I believe that's the government's concern too."

The Quebec government has already set up a program for self-employed new parents in that province. Participation is mandatory, and premiums are somewhat higher than for salaried employees.

The federal Conservatives have made it clear, however, that Quebec is not a model to follow, and that self-employed people should have a choice of whether to participate.

During the federal election campaign a year ago, Stephen Harper said he would bring in a voluntary program that would require a recipient to opt in at least six months before making a claim.

The program would cost about $143-million a year, but the costs would be covered by the participants themselves, the Conservatives calculated.

Such a voluntary program could be very expensive, especially if Ottawa wants it to be self-sustaining, warns Ted Mallett, of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business.

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