A welder temporarily left without income because the hazards of her job forced her to stop working early into her pregnancy is the inspiration behind a private member's bill to reform the maternity leave benefit system.

Melodie Ballard said she took leave from her job at a company that builds rescue boats in Kingston, Ont., because of the chemicals, aluminum dust in the air and the risk of heat exhaustion from working in confined spaces.

However, gaps in benefits left her without income for two and a half months.

"I was panicked. It was a pretty scary situation," she said on CBC Radio's All In A Day Tuesday. "I thought for sure we had something to cover this situation."

She then approached Ted Hsu, then-Liberal MP for Kingston and the Islands, for help.

Hsu did not run for re-election but new MP Mark Gerretsen picked up where his predecessor left off, eventually introducing the National Maternity Assistance Program Strategy Act last Friday.

'I was panicked. It was a pretty scary situation.' - Melodie Ballard

"Right from the beginning, hearing the stories of what Melodie was going through, it just seemed wrong," Gerretsen said on All In A Day.

His bill proposes to amend the Employment Insurance Act to allow a claimant to use her maternity benefits 15 weeks before her due date if her job poses a risk to her health or the health of her unborn child. 

The earliest the benefit can currently begin is eight weeks before the due date.

"That's not going to capture everything. It's a start," Gerretsen said.

That's why the bill also calls for the development of a national maternity strategy, which he said needs to take into account the fact that more and more women are working in trades.

Income gap

Ballard was training as a welder at MetalCraft Marine, a company that builds rescue boats, in Kingston, Ont., when she found out she was pregnant last year.

Her doctor and midwife told her the work was too dangerous and after her employer was not able to offer her alternate work, such as driving a truck or office tasks, she stopped working four weeks into her pregnancy.

She was initially offered half her income under sick leave because she was not eligible for maternity leave, which can only begin at 32 weeks of pregnancy.

"(Sick leave) is technically not a program for pregnant people but they were sort of fudging the rules to try to help me out," she said.

But the benefit ran out after 15 weeks and she still did not qualify for maternity leave.

"It left me with an income gap of two-and-a-half months — with nothing," she said.

Her son, Ezra, is now nine months old. Ballard said her maternity leave benefits have run out but that she's trying to stay at home with him for a full year with the help of Ontario Works, some child care work and a fundraising campaign.

Listen to the full interview with Melodie Ballard and Liberal MP Mark Gerretsen here.