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St. John's woman worries she will not qualify for maternity benefits due to loss of work during pandemic

Samantha McLennon, pictured with her husband, Luke McLennon, and one-year-old daughter, Mila, is due to give birth to her second child in October. — CONTRIBUTED PHOTO
Samantha McLennon, pictured with her husband, Luke McLennon, and one-year-old daughter, Mila, is due to give birth to her second child in October. — CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

Employer's forced closure leaves Samantha McLennon worried she'll fall short of qualifying standards

ST. JOHN'S, N.L. —

Andrew Robinson

The Telegram

Like many in Newfoundland and Labrador, Samantha McLennon is anxious to get back to work.

The esthetician is employed at a St. John's beauty salon and has not been able to clock hours since mid-March in light of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and public health measures that forced non-essential businesses to close.

While it looks like McLennon will soon be able to resume working as the province potentially moves toward relaxing some of those measures at Alert Level 3, she may find herself in a tight spot trying to accumulate enough hours to qualify for benefits needed to support her growing family.

Last spring, Samantha and her husband, Luke McLennon, welcomed to the world their first child, Mila, who recently turned one. The McLennons are now expecting a second child with a due date set for Oct. 6.

Samantha started maternity leave about four weeks before Mila's birth and received the final payment for her parental benefits last month. She started working again in February of this year, but only on a part-time basis, accumulating almost 50 hours by mid-March. In order to qualify for employment insurance maternity and parental benefits, Samantha needs to work a minimum of 600 hours within the previous year.

Hard math

With salons in Newfoundland and Labrador expected to reopen within the next week, Samantha would need to hustle to reach the benchmark for qualifying. At 37.5 hours a week, she would hypothetically need to work approximately 15 weeks full-time. Complicating matters is the fact Samantha knows some of her regular clients are not ready to start coming back for appointments because of COVID-19 safety concerns. Samantha also knows her wage will be reduced when she goes back to work. Furthermore, the salon employs approximately 50 people, but there will be limitations on how many can work at once.

"The hairdressers, for example, it's only seven people allowed to work at a time," she said. "So, some of them are only getting two or three shifts a week. That's a big difference when you're used to working five days a week. Before I had Mila, I used to go in and work two or three 12-hour days a week to get my hours in, and I used to always work extra hours. There was never an issue with it. … (I'm) not saying that I'd go back and work all 12-hour shifts, but if I can't even work a normal eight-hour day, it's obviously going to affect my hours."

Knowing how uncertain the next few months are, Samantha doubts she can realistically expect to get enough hours of work in before her next child is born.

"Especially if anything was to happen, if we did have (a second wave) or our hours do get reduced."

Looking for answers

Samantha recently contacted Employment and Social Development Canada and the office of MP Seamus O'Regan. While she did not know their specific circumstances, Samantha told The Telegram she was aware of other pregnant women in the province worried about getting enough hours to qualify for the benefits. Samantha says the federal government must find a way to help pregnant women whose employment was affected by circumstances beyond their control. One option she suggests would be to temporarily lower the qualifying threshold for hours worked.

"It's just a crappy situation, with getting pregnant during COVID-19," she said.

If she cannot qualify for maternity benefits, Samantha says, she would have to consider going back to work and finding a family member who could help care for the children, because she expects it would be difficult to find child care for an infant. Another scenario would involve finding shifts that overlap with times when her husband will be home from work.

"You can't just sit home and take care of kids without any income at all," Samantha said.

Government response

In a statement released to The Telegram, an Employment and Social Development Canada spokeswoman wrote that the federal government is continuing to explore ways to help Canadians during a very uncertain period.

"We understand that workers who have been laid off and who are going on maternity or parental leave in a few months have questions with regards to their claims for maternity or parental benefits," the statement read.

The statement noted eligibility criteria, including hours of work needed to quality for EI maternity and parental benefits, remains unchanged. It said parents laid off before March 15 would receive regular EI benefits, and the maximum number of weeks a person can claim regular EI benefits and maternity and standard parental benefits is 50 weeks, or longer for those who choose extended parental benefits at a lower rate.

Parents who lose a job and are EI eligible after March 15 would receive the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) for a maximum of 16 weeks and transition to EI maternity and parental benefits when eligible. Weeks for which they collect CERB will not affect the number of weeks of maternity and parental benefits they may receive, according to the statement.

andrew.robinson@thetelegram.com

@CBNAndrew

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