Grieving mother calls for changes to EI benefits program
The New Waterford woman asked to apply for short-term disability benefits but was told her employer didn’t pay into a coverage plan.
“I thought ‘My heavens how am I going to survive?’” she said. “I couldn’t leave her side. I couldn’t imagine being in Cape Breton working and her being in Halifax dying.”
When she was diagnosed, Stephanie’s body was full of massive tumours and several of her organs had started to shut down. Her lungs were filled with fluid, one had collapsed, and she had a large tumour on her heart. She was on life support at times and had started kidney dialysis. Finlayson said the treatments gave Stephanie a high fever, six-hour nosebleeds and almost every month she’d be in cardiac distress.
Breathing a heavy sigh, Finlayson said she quit her job and applied for federal unemployment sickness benefits due to stress. After reapplying once, she was given a total of 15 weeks at the basic rate of 55 per cent of her average earnings. She also requested six weeks compassionate care benefits designed for people who leave work to care or support a family member who is at risk of dying. She says EI officials told her she couldn’t receive compassionate care benefits while her daughter was being treated.
“If you give birth you’re entitled to (about a) year’s unemployment but if your child is dying you’re only entitled to six weeks and you are only entitled to it when treatment stops,” she said.
According to the federal Department of Human Resources, eligibility for compassionate care benefits hinges on a form signed and completed by a patient’s doctor to confirm they need a family member’s care or support and that they are at risk of dying within 26 weeks.
Beyond the six weeks, if a loved one is still gravely ill, the claimant may be eligible for another six weeks, provided they file a new claim with supporting documents, after the initial 26 week period.
Although Stephanie’s doctor sent out the necessary papers, Finlayson said she only received six paid weeks after contacting Liberal MP for Sydney-Victoria Mark Eyking.
Eyking said he’s heard of a growing number of cases like Finlayson’s. He put forward a bill to amend the Employment Insurance Act by extending benefits for illness, injury or quarantine from 15 weeks to 50 weeks. The bill was first read in Parliament in 2006 and was supported by both the NDP and the Bloc Québécois.
Bill C-278 passed in its first and second readings. However, before it reached a final vote, a Conservative member successfully contested the proposed legislation, arguing it is a financial bill rather than a private member’s bill.
But Eyking disagrees, saying it qualifies as a private members’ bill based on employee contributions to the EI program.
His party is planning to reintroduce the bill after prorogation ends March 3. He’s also hoping to amend the conditions of compassionate care to give caretakers a one-year entitlement to EI, similar to a regular layoff.
“All of a sudden you have a major illness like heart attack, stroke or diabetes, but cancer is a big one and then all of a sudden they can’t work for a year,” said Eyking. “It’s leaving people bankrupt and losing everything. It’s hard enough to go through the illness.”
While EI carried Finlayson into the spring of 2008, things were unravelling in her personal life. She began a process of separating from her husband and selling their house. She was also accumulating a considerable amount of debt from having to stay in hotels, paying for her house and purchasing food and items such as hospital parking and clothes for Stephanie.
Cape Breton Centre MLA Frank Corbett helped by offering his Halifax apartment while the provincial legislature was adjourned. Finlayson said she and Stephanie, who was then receiving outpatient treatments, stayed in the apartment for about three months.
Stephanie completed her cancer treatments in September but a few weeks later her health began to decline. By mid-October she was back in hospital.
“For a whole year I still had to pay for my house, I still had to pay all these expenses, my husband didn’t contribute and then all these expenses up here,” said Finlayson. “ You have teenagers ... just think of how much you spent on magazines and puzzle books and scratch tickets, just things trying to occupy their time.”
Finlayson said Cape Breton’s legendary generosity came through when her community, employer, and family members together raised over $30,000 in donations for Stephanie.
She said she continued to pay into her employee medical plan, which covered approximately $60,000 of Stephanie’s medical costs, but some medications still were not covered.
“There should be some kind of funding so that these children don’t have to be there by themselves,” said Finlayson. “I’m seeing all these children there, they’re 19, 20 years old ... and this has been happening for years. It happens at the IWK with the small children as well.”
Asked if she believes a 19 or 20 year old is considered a child, Finlayson said yes.
“It’s a national issue,” said Finlayson. “It’s happening in all of the hospitals, that these little children are going through life-threatening illnesses and the parents have to go to work because not only are you keeping your own expenses, but you are acquiring all these additional expenses because you have a sick child.”
In October 2008, doctors said Stephanie’s spleen and liver were grossly enlarged. Finlayson insisted Stephanie have surgery to remove the organs, which were found to be cancerous. Doctors hesitantly gave Stephanie another round of chemotherapy following the surgery and before she was scheduled to receive a stem cell transplant.
While the cancer went into remission, Stephanie contracted the MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) virus in Halifax hospital and died from the infection.
Valerie Finlayson of New Waterford holds a photograph of her daughter Stephanie, left in photo, who lost her battle with leukemia in 2008. Finlayson quit her job to be with her daughter as she received medical treatment. She is now urging Canada’s MPs to support an amendment to the federal Employment Insurance Act that would allow parents to receive one-year wage benefits while caring for a child with a terminal illness.