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Federal EI benefits extended to farm families

The federal government’s plan to extend maternity, parental, sickness and compassionate care benefits through the Employment Insurance (EI) program to farmers and other self-employed Canadians is seen as a major potential boon for rural Canada.

Federal Human Resources Minister Diane Finley announced the planned benefits Tuesday morning in introducing what the government calls the Fairness for the Self-Employed Act.

Under the proposed legislation, self-employed Canadians would be required to opt into the program at least a year prior to claiming benefits. They would also be responsible for making premium payments starting with the tax year in which they apply to the program. For example, with a program start date of January 2010, claims could be made as early as Jan. 1, 2011.

To get EI special benefits, self-employed individuals would need to have earned at least $6,000 in self-employed earnings over the preceding calendar year.

“Overall, the special benefits for self-employed individuals would mirror those currently available to salaried employees under the EI program,” the government said.

The self-employed could also opt out of the EI program at the end of any tax year, as long as they have never claimed benefits. If they have claimed benefits, they would have to contribute on self-employed earnings for as long as they are self-employed.

Self-employed Canadians who opt into the program would pay the same EI premium rate as salaried employees, but would not be required to pay the employer portion of premiums, in recognition of the fact that they still won’t have access to EI regular benefits.

“Our government knows that self-employed Canadians should not have to choose between their family and their business responsibilities,” Finley said in a release. “Extending access to these benefits is the fair and right thing to do. It is good family policy, and it represents one of the most significant enhancements to the EI program in the last decade.”

“The self-employed have had little or no income protection to cope with major life events, such as giving birth, caring for a newborn or newly adopted child, being sick or injured, or caring for a gravely ill family member,” she said. “This government is now providing these Canadians with greater peace of mind with respect to their future financial security.”

“Huge potential”

Programs such as these can be of critical importance for young families debating whether to take over the family farm or work elsewhere, said Richard Phillips, executive director of Grain Growers of Canada, in a separate release Tuesday.

“Parents today are more active in sharing parental duties and this could allow access to hire replacement labour for a period of time.”

And such legislation, he said, “could be the difference as whether one member of the family has to seek off farm employment because now families will have a choice.

“With over 200,000 farms in Canada, if even 10 per cent of them choose to take advantage of these programs, this could help ensure another 20,000 more young families staying on the land… This has huge potential for quality of life in rural Canada.”

The special benefits available to farm families and others who opt into the EI program would include:

  • up to 15 weeks of maternity benefits for birth mothers, covering the period surrounding birth, as a claim can start up to eight weeks before the expected birth date;
  • up to 35 weeks of parental benefits for biological or adoptive parents while they care for a newborn or newly adopted child, to be taken by either parent or shared between them (if parents opt to share these benefits, only one waiting period must be served);
  • up to 15 weeks of sickness benefits for a person who can’t work due to sickness, injury or quarantine; and
  • up to six weeks of compassionate care benefits for those who have to be away from work temporarily to provide care or support to a family member who’s “gravely ill with a significant risk of death.”

Self-employed residents of Quebec would continue to receive maternity and parental benefits through that province’s Parental Insurance Program, but they would also be eligible to take advantage of sickness and compassionate care benefits coming from federal EI, the government said.

Should Quebec’s self-employees choose to take advantage of the program, they would pay EI premiums at the same rates as employees in Quebec, where rates are already adjusted downward to take the province’s maternity and parental benefit plan into account.

Phillips, in the GGC’s release Tuesday, noted 70 per cent of all farms in Canada have off-farm income. “In many cases families have made a conscious decision to enter the workforce to be able to access benefits that many Canadians take for granted.”

And if a spouse or partner in one family works off farm, he or she has had access to the financial support provided by these programs, Phillips said, “while the next family is on their own, even though both family members have worked full time contributing to the farm.”

In all, Finley said, about 2.6 million Canadians are self-employed, and “we think that the self-employed should have the option of getting the same income protection that salaried employees currently receive when it comes to major life events.”

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