Many Canadians may be surprised to learn that after going on parental leave they might fail to qualify for employment insurance — a policy some are calling discriminatory.

Currently, people who apply for EI in Canada are evaluated based on a certain number of hours worked during the past 52 weeks of employment.

CBC Montreal's investigative unit spoke to parents who say those weeks spent on parental leave left them ineligible for benefits. Current policy does not allow new parents to use the same work weeks to qualify for both maternity leave and EI.

Jennifer Beeman, a co-ordinator with the Council for Women's Access to Work, says the policy goes against decades of women’s rights advocacy.

"Women have been fighting for 50 years saying maternity leave is not unemployment, they are not the same thing," Beeman said.

"When I am on maternity leave after having given birth, I am probably working harder than I ever have; I am not getting any sleep and providing for the needs of the family."

Thousands of Canadians fall through the cracks

Ed Canning, an employment lawyer with Ross McBride law firm in Hamilton, estimates about 2,000 women fail to qualify for EI every year because of maternity leave.

Montrealer Julie Barron had no idea she wasn’t eligible for EI until it was too late.

'It's extremely discriminatory.'—Ed Canning, employment lawyer

She was one of 400 Cirque du Soleil employees who received layoff notices last February.

She had been back at work for only four weeks after being on maternity leave, and when she applied for EI she was surprised to discover she didn’t qualify.

"It's frustrating to me that I've been paying into the system for a decade and I can't collect it when I need it," Barron said. "I don't believe that I am asking for too much."

Exception for prisoners, but not mothers

Canning said he regularly sees clients in the same situation as Julie Barron.

He said he can't understand why the government is willing to make exceptions for people who are too sick to work or have spent one year in prison and are then released, but won't do the same for new mothers.

"It's extremely discriminatory," Canning said. "I look at women who have served society and had children … and they are treated, I think, less well and not as attractively as someone who just got out of jail."

Alyson Queen, spokeswoman for Human Resources Minister Diane Finley, released a statement on Monday saying her office has backed a private member’s bill that will remove that exemption for convicts.

"We firmly believe that convicted criminals should not have greater access to the EI system than law-abiding Canadians," Queen said.

Bill C-316, which is close to becoming law, would prevent convicts from extending the time they qualify for EI benefits.

Queen’s statement made no mention of whether the government would consider extending benefits for new parents.

Proposed solution

The federal NDP has proposed its own bill, C-362, that would extend EI benefits for women who lose their job during or after their maternity leave. 

NDP Leader Tom Mulcair told CBC News that women "should of course be able to use the program for two different needs but the Conservatives are making up the rules as they go along because they decided on that amount that has to be delivered in cuts."

Corrections

  • An earlier version of this story stated that Julie Barron had been back at work for four months when she was laid off. In fact, Barron had been back at work for four weeks.
    Sep 12, 2013 1:56 AM ET