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Opinion Canada’s Compassionate Care Benefit needs a rethink

Michael J. Prince is Lansdowne Professor of Social Policy at the University of Victoria.

Under the theme of helping families make ends meet, the 2015 federal budget announced that the Compassionate Care Benefit is to be extended, effective January, 2016, going from six weeks to six months. The basic aim of this benefit, introduced in 2004, is to better support Canadians caring for a gravely ill family member. An eligible person will be able to receive up to $13,624 from this extended benefit. The benefit, which is treated as taxable income, can be shared with other family members but each family member must be eligible for the benefit.

Finance Canada estimates the budgetary cost will be $9-million in 2015-16 and thereafter cost up to $37-million a year.

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Along with other items presented in this pre-election budget, commentators have described this social policy initiative as a relatively small measure financially, yet aimed politically at a targeted group, a niche voter segment and a key constituency of potential supporters. The compassionate care benefit operates at the intersection of labour market policy, income security and family policy.

Along the lines of this political analysis, The Globe identified the compassionate care benefit extension as directed at boomer caregivers, "the largest segment of the population, with the most number of votes," and concluded that "it is difficult to see the downside to this measure and there is unlikely to be much criticism."

Certainly, as a social reform, health care organizations and caregivers welcome this extension to compassionate care benefits and, in a federal election year, it easily seems to be smart politics. With an aging population, we can reasonably assume that claims for compassionate care benefits will continue to increase as working adults respond to the care needs of a gravely ill or dying family member. EI tracking surveys find that most working Canadians say they are likely to apply for the Compassionate Care Benefit in the future if the circumstances arose.

There is, however, a downside to this program. It truly is a niche measure; a special benefit financed and delivered through the Employment Insurance program.

To qualify for the CCB, a person must show that their regular weekly earnings have decreased by more than 40 per cent and that they have accumulated 600 insured hours in the last 52 weeks, or since their last claim to the Employment Insurance program. Since it was first introduced, the benefit has offered six weeks within the 26-week period of a family member at significant risk of dying. A two-week waiting period applies to the compassionate care benefit, just like for all other EI benefits. The benefit can apply to a family member of the individual or to their spouse or common-law partner. Eligible family relationships for the benefit go well beyond the "nuclear unit" of parents and children to encompass a diverse network of extended family and kinship relations.

If eligible, an EI claimant may receive Compassionate Care benefits and Regular EI benefits to a maximum of 50 weeks; or Compassionate Care, Maternity, Parental and Sickness benefits up to a combined maximum of 71 weeks.

But this program is beyond the reach of many Canadians working in non-standard employment. That is, jobs which are part-time, temporary, casual or freelance, seasonal, contract, on-call or contingent. Most non-standard jobs are associated, on average, with lower weekly earnings, lower pension coverage, lower disability and health benefits, little or no job security, and relatively few opportunities for promotions in workplaces. Women are more likely to be in non-standard employment than men.

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So consider this situation: Sophie works part-time through the year and takes pride in her job, though she would really like to work full-time if the work was available. Sophie's mother is terminally ill with significant risk of death in the next six months. Because Sophie has not accumulated the required number of insured hours in the past year she is ineligible for the Compassionate Care Benefit. The EI program is not available. Sophie faces the intensely difficult choice between keeping her job and a measure of financial security and being absent from work to care for a loved one that is dying or at risk of death. In choosing to care for a loved one comes financial hardship; future earnings and career prospects may be at risk. No such social safety net exists for Sophie and the millions of Canadians who work in non-standard and part-time employment.

Here is the big public policy question: is the EI system really the best policy platform for this benefit in achieving effective and progressive outcomes for Canadian families? All families and parents, regardless of their labour force status or work history, should have access to this safety net of compassionate care delivered through a general public program, funded from general revenue. This should become more than a niche issue in the next federal election.

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