Kayla De Francesco and Kassandra Bartlett immediately bonded on Facebook after realizing they had both been told they could not access the Canada Emergency Response Benefit because they are pregnant.
When a Service Canada agent told her she would have to start drawing down on her maternity employment insurance benefits even though her baby isn’t due until October, De Francesco said she started crying and had to hand the phone over to her husband.
“It took literally all night for me to calm down,” she said.
Bartlett said she has received similar information from Service Canada.
“It’s just added stress during a time when you’re not supposed to be stressing and control your blood pressure,” said Bartlett.
De Francesco and Bartlett, both based in Milton, Ont., are just two of an unknown number of women who say they haven’t been able to access Ottawa’s $2,000-a-month emergency benefits program simply because they have told the government they are expectant mothers.
On May 5, Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough said in a letter to all members of parliament that the government expects to have the issue fixed as of Friday, May 8.
“As of May 8th, expectant mothers who should have been receiving the CERB will have their claims converted retroactively to the CERB,” the letter reads.
Once the switchover has happened, women who’ve been receiving Employment Insurance benefits of less than $500 a week will receive retroactive top-ups. Those who’ve been receiving more will not face a claw-back, according to the letter.
Currently, the maximum amount Canadians can receive through EI is $573 per week versus $500 a week for the CERB.
Qlatrough also reiterated the weeks for which expectant mothers collect the CERB will not impact their EI maternity and parental leave entitlements.
“Any weeks where they received regular EI benefits when they should have been receiving CERB will be put back onto their account and they will have those weeks available to them when needed once their child is born,” the letter says.
The issue has been haunting the federal government for some time. In an interview with the Canadian Press published on April 24, Qualtrough said moms-to-be would get the benefits they’re entitled to. The federal government, she said, was working on a fix “because there is not a scenario where we don’t make this right for people.”
But on that same day, Service Canada agents were still telling De Francesco and Bartlett they would not be able to access the CERB and would have to start drawing on their EI maternity and parental benefits instead, both women told Global News.
What’s been taking Ottawa so long to address a well-known problem on which it kept facing questions from MPs?
Part of the answer, according to ESDC Deputy Minister Graham Flack, is the outdated technology that supports the country’s employment insurance system.
Ottawa’s intention always was for pregnant women who qualify for the CERB to receive the emergency benefit and then transition to EI maternity and paternity benefits, Flack told the Standing Committee on Human Resources, Skills and Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities (HUMA) on April 30.
But, he added, “our system was not built to be able to do this.”
“This is a 46-year-old COBOL-based system that was not designed to accommodate these sort of changes quickly,” Flack said later on in his testimony.
COBOL, or common business-oriented language, a computer programming language first developed in 1959, ceased to be widely used in the 1990s, according to the Encyclopaedia Britannica.
Some government programs, however, still run on the decades-old mainframe. In the U.S., states like New Jersey, Kansas and Connecticut are also scrambling to process unprecedented volumes of unemployment claims on COBOL-based computer systems, CNN reported.
In Canada, outdated technology is complicating the task of tweaking the current EI program to accommodate changes required by the rollout of the CERB, according to Flack.
While the government is working on implementing a solution to automatically transition pregnant women onto the CERB, Ottawa has been putting expectant mothers on EI benefits so that they will still get payments, Flack said.
Bartlett, who was temporarily laid off from her full-time job as a sales manager on April 3, said she’s heard from other pregnant women who applied for the CERB through the Canada Revenue Agency portal, rather than through the EI system, and have been receiving the CERB without trouble.
Unlike the CRA application process, Service Canada’s CERB application includes a question about whether claimants are pregnant and planning to go on maternity leave.
The question was meant to “ensure a smooth transition over to maternity/parental at the appropriate time without having to re-apply,” Qualtrough wrote in the letter.
A screenshot of Bartlett’s Service Canada account seen by Global News indicates she is receiving regular unemployment benefits.
But both Bartlett and De Francesco said they were repeatedly told by Service Canada agents they’d be accessing their maternity and parental benefits, not unemployment benefits.
A separate issue is whether women who stopped working because of the pandemic will be able to access maternity and parental benefits even if they haven’t accumulated the minimum number of eligible employment hours normally required to receive the benefits.
Qualtrough has said the government will ensure expectant mothers who had to stop working because of the health emergency are able to receive maternity and parental benefits.
“They’re going to have full access to their maternity and parental entitlements and they’ll receive the accurate dollar amounts,” Qualtrough told the Canadian Press.
But the government’s antiquated IT is getting in the way here as well, according to Flack.
“What we don’t want to do is put changes into that system that could risk other EI beneficiaries in terms of problems that emerge in the system,” Flack said.
Legacy government IT is a big problem, according to Jennifer Robson, a professor at Carleton University, who recently flagged the issue on Twitter.
“The back-end systems that run our income security systems aren’t capable of the nimble and nuanced changes that policymakers and the public might want,” Robson told Global News via email.
In February, officials briefing Prime Minister Justin Trudeau after his party’s re-election noted “mission-critical” systems and applications are “rusting out and at risk of failure,” requiring immediate attention from his government.
Some systems are pushing 60 years old and built on “outdated technology” that can no longer be maintained, according to documents obtained by the Canadian Press through the Access to Information Act.
Speaking with Global News before the release of Qualtrough’s letter, Rosemarie Falk, a Conservative MP who sits on HUMA, said technical difficulties did not absolve the government from the responsibility to remedy the issue quickly.
Falk said she understands the government is dealing with a “fluid situation” and computer issues. But, she added, “it’s not an excuse.”
“Canadians shouldn’t have to fight for benefits that they’re entitled to.”
De Francesco, meanwhile, said she was focusing on reducing the anxiety the issue has been causing her.
“All of this stress obviously isn’t good for anybody, but it especially isn’t good for me.”
— With files from the Canadian PressView link »