03/11/2013 01:08 EDT | Updated 05/11/2013 05:12 EDT

EI Reform: Feds Sweeten Benefits For Parents On Leave


OTTAWA - The federal government, under fire over tougher employment insurance rules, is sweetening benefits for parents.

It says it will allow individuals receiving parental benefits through EI to qualify for sickness benefits as well, starting March 24.

Human Resources Minister Diane Finley says about 6,000 people may be able to access the expanded benefit.

People receiving parental benefits aren't currently able to access EI sickness benefits because they're not considered to be otherwise available for work.

Finley says the new rule will make EI more flexible for parents, allowing them to qualify for benefits if they fall ill or are injured while on parental benefits.

The change was originally proposed by New Democrat MP Chris Charlton as part of a private-member's bill introduced last year.

The government is "cherry picking benefits for good news," Charlton said Monday.

Canadians should be allowed to stack their benefits, using more than one concurrently, which is why her bill wasn't limited to just parental and sickness benefits, she said.

"Say your company closes while you're on maternity benefits. You can't access your regular benefits,” Charlton said.

"You should be entitled to the same benefits as your colleagues."

Finley's announcement comes on the heels of a slew of controversial EI reforms the government says it’s phasing in to combat fraud.

Members of the opposition and Atlantic premiers have criticized the government, saying the changes don't make sense for workers and could devastate seasonal industries such as fishing, farming or tourism.

In the House of Commons last week, Labour Minister Lisa Raitt was on the defensive, calling the changes "common sense."

Raitt said the changes are "to ensure that the product is there for people when they need it most, when they lose their jobs through circumstances no fault of their own."

Under some of the new rules, those who frequently claim EI need to prove they're actively seeking work. They also must accept any job within 100 kilometres of their home, as long as they're qualified and the pay is at least 70 per cent of their previous salary.

The changes sparked protests across the country last month, particularly in Quebec.

The changes also clarify what qualifies as a suitable job search and require EI recipients to prepare resumes, register for job banks, attend job fairs, apply for jobs and undergo competency evaluations.

The government estimates its efforts to keep EI claimants honest is expected to cost $7.2 million a year, but the program is expected to save $12.5 million this year and $33 million next year.

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