OTTAWA — For Courtney Franks, it's not about the money, but feeling like the employment insurance system has treated her and other new mothers unfairly.
Franks is fighting the government at the tribunal set up to settle disputes over benefits, known as the Social Security Tribunal.
She argues the pandemic rules that helped workers qualify for EI benefits have also made it harder for many new mothers to get fully funded maternity and parental leaves.
Franks is hoping the tribunal finds the the wording of the law to be too vague and that it wasn't properly applied, which has meant the full year she expected with her baby has been drastically cut.
It's the latest push from new and soon-to-be mothers for parental benefits they would have likely received had it not been for the pandemic.
It may also be their last option with the Liberals unlikely to legislate a solution.
But Franks faces an uphill battle. The tribunal has ruled against her once and has said in two similar rulings that its hands are tied by the law.
"This does not make any sense," Franks wrote in one document submitted as part of her case. "I should not be penalized....due to being a pregnant woman."
Eligible workers usually need a minimum of 600 hours on the job to qualify for EI, but the federal government dropped the figure to 420 during the pandemic as many workers lost hours.
As a further, one-time measure, the government topped up every new EI claim with extra hours to ensure they qualified even if an applicant, like Franks, didn't need the help.
Demii Niles had enough hours as well when the one-time credit was applied to her claim after she was let go from her job as a fitness adviser with Goodlife Fitness in March.
She went back to work in July when restrictions eased in Ontario, and was planning to work until just before her due date in early October.
When a new mother receiving regular EI benefits gives birth, they have to file a new claim for maternity and parental benefits, meaning they have to meet the hours requirement anew even though they may have been unable to work because of the pandemic.
It was shortly before her due date that Niles learned she no longer had enough hours to qualify for a full parental leave. She also was told the one-time credit couldn't be applied to her new EI claim.
"Even if they just changed the way that this one-time credit had been given to us — that it wasn't automatically given when we didn't need it — and it could be used for when someone needed it, like for mat leave per se, that would solve the issue," she said.
However, the Social Security Tribunal has told affected women that the rules are the rules.
In an August 2021 ruling, a tribunal adjudicator wrote that the appeals body cannot make an exception or override the law for the mother involved, "no matter how compelling her circumstances."
A similar note was attached to an October 2020 ruling.
In that case, a mother returned from a previous parental leave in March 2020, and fell short of having enough hours to qualify for a new parental leave even with the one-time top-up.
Though that mother argued she would have worked the required hours if not for COVID-19, the adjudicator ruled the government hadn't done anything incorrect when it denied her claim for EI benefits.
"Unfortunately, the law does not allow for any payment of maternity benefits unless a claimant has qualified to receive them," reads the ruling.
"I truly sympathize with the claimant’s situation, but I am unable to circumvent, rewrite or ignore the law, even in the interest of compassion."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 31, 2021.
Jordan Press, The Canadian Press