It is official. The Federal Court has approved a multimillion-dollar class-action settlement that will see Ottawa pay EI sickness benefits to as many as 2,000 new parents — mostly mothers — who were seriously ill during parental leave, but denied the additional money.
Justice Catherine Kane’s decision late Wednesday ends a six-year battle waged by Calgary mother Jennifer McCrea on behalf of about 2,000 others who will receive an average of almost $4,000 each.
McCrea, who was awarded an additional $10,000 as an honorarium for her efforts as class plaintiff, was “very relieved that it is over.”
“It has been quite a long journey,” she told the Star. “So many times I wanted to quit … But I am grateful that I had the strength to fight … many women didn’t have it in them to fight.”
Ottawa settled with McCrea last August and the deal was confirmed in September, subject to court approval.
The settlement, which covers parents who were denied the benefit between March 2002 and March 2013, is estimated to be worth between $8.5 million and $11 million, depending on the number of class members who apply for the money.
McCrea, 42, developed breast cancer in 2011 while on maternity leave with her youngest son, Logan, but was denied additional EI sickness benefits.
She is owed $7,515, the maximum 15-week benefit at the time.
Under the terms of the settlement, only parents who were sick during the parental leave portion of their combined maternity/parental leave period and were denied additional EI sickness benefits are eligible for compensation.
In her ruling, Kane said the settlement “is fair and reasonable” and that the honorarium for McCrea is warranted “given her significant contribution to this litigation and settlement.”
Kane noted the benefits would likely have been of more help to the women when they were ill. But she said the settlement was “nevertheless … a very good result.”
“They will receive their benefits, albeit years later, and they will have witnessed both a change in the legislation to benefit others like them and improvements in the manner that information is shared by Service Canada about such benefits,” she added.
McCrea’s lawyer Stephen Moreau was “thrilled” by the ruling.
“I’m glad to know this very long chapter has been closed,” he said.
Moreau, who has been battling Ottawa on the issue for almost nine years, was particularly pleased class members will receive 100 per cent of the EI benefit they are owed.
Moreau and his law firm, Cavalluzzo LLP were awarded about $2.5 million to cover legal costs.
The court action stems from a 2002 change to EI legislation that extended sickness benefits to working parents who become ill during pregnancy or while on maternity and parental leave.
It meant new mothers, such as McCrea, could take up to 15 weeks of sickness benefits to recuperate and then resume their parental benefits.
But EI officials didn’t interpret the changes that way; they argued that since an ill woman on parental leave wasn’t available for work, she wasn’t eligible for EI sickness benefits.
It wasn’t until Toronto mother Natalya Rougas successfully appealed her case in 2011 that the federal government took notice.
Moreau, who represented Rougas in her successful claim, launched the class action in 2012 on behalf of McCrea after the Calgary mother read about the case online in the Star.
Stephen Harper’s Conservative government eventually changed the law in 2013 to ensure new mothers with serious illnesses are not denied EI sickness benefits. And it quietly paid about 350 women who had their applications denied in 2012 and 2013.
But it refused to pay McCrea and others who were denied sickness benefits between 2002 and 2013.
McCrea said she was grateful to the Liberal government for living up to its 2015 election promise to settle the case, “albeit not as quickly as we had hoped.”
She also thanked the Star for keeping the case in the public eye.
“You were there when (others) couldn’t care less and that made all the difference.”
Laurie Monsebraaten is a Toronto-based reporter covering social justice. Follow her on Twitter: @lmonseb