The federal minister in charge of employment insurance says he wants to hear from Canadians before making any changes to benefits that could have far-reaching implications for new parents and those caring for an ailing loved one.
It will only be for four weeks, but the online consultations launched Thursday may open the door for Canadians who want more changes to the benefits system beyond what the Liberals put in their campaign platform.
That could include, as Liberal MP Mark Gerretsen has already proposed, allowing pregnant women in dangerous or challenging jobs to start taking their 15 weeks of maternity leave before they give birth. Or retooling a barely-used program aimed at giving financial help to the parents of murdered or missing children.
Social Development Minister Jean-Yves Duclos said it is all on the table as the Liberals focus on finalizing a plan by the 2017 budget.
"We want to take a few more weeks — and that's little time, I think, in the context of this important and broad social agenda to make — to make things right, to do things right," Duclos said.
Conservative MP Blake Richards cited the case of a family in his Alberta riding who lost their four-month-old to sudden infant death syndrome, only to be cut off from parental benefits and ordered to repay a portion of their EI payments.
"Families are not even aware that this is the case," said Richards, who plans to push families to tell the government to close the loophole. "We need to be showing a bit more compassion here."
Richards said he hoped the government would take the issue into account when crafting a new policy.
The consultations, which started Thursday, will look at the Liberal campaign promise to expand parental leave and compassionate care benefits to Canadians who care for a family member. The four-week period will give employers, workers, provinces, and experts a chance to make policy recommendations.
Duclos said the government's goal is to have the details of changes in place by next year's federal budget.
The Liberals promised during the election campaign to extend parental leave under the employment insurance system to 18 months from 12. The new system wouldn't have a similar increase in benefits. The Liberal campaign platform estimated the plan would cost $125 million a year in 2017 and 2018.
Critics of the plan say such a system would only benefit those women and families who have enough resources to cover expenses during a year where one or both parents have less income. As well, research suggests that the more time women take on maternity leave, the less likely they are to return to full-time work.
The government has hinted at other things it is interested in doing within the parental leave system, including having dedicated paternity leave, similar to what is already available to new fathers in Quebec.
On the compassionate care front, the Liberals estimated it would cost $585 million over the next three years to expand eligibility for the benefit, and let those eligible claim the six-month benefit incrementally over a one-year period.
Asked why the Liberals were consulting on promises outlined in the election, Duclos said the campaign pledges were both specific and broad in that they didn't prescribe policy details.
He said the government wants to make sure employment insurance benefits match the needs and realities of today's families.
"Our society is changing rapidly. We want to make sure that our EI system adapts to those changes," Duclos said.
"And before we make relatively vast and important changes to that EI system, we want to make sure we have had an opportunity to engage with Canadians."