B.C. scraps benefits clawback that sparked rights battle

The B.C. government has scrapped a controversial clawback that prompted a Sooke woman to file a human rights complaint.

Jess Alford had accused the government of sex discrimination for deducting her maternity benefits dollar-for-dollar from her partner’s disability assistance.

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The Community Legal Assistance Society, which prepared the complaint, said Alford worked in a bookstore and paid premiums into employment insurance. When she left work to have a baby, the provincial government deducted the entire amount of her maternity and parental benefits from her partner’s disability assistance.

“My family’s income went down at a time when we needed it the most — all because I had to take time off work to have my child,” Alford said in a statement announcing her claim last May.

“I was forced into a position of choosing to take leave and impoverish my family or return to work immediately following the birth of my child when I wasn’t physically ready.”

The province announced Tuesday that it will abandon the policy effective Oct. 1. Employment Insurance maternity and parental benefits now will be fully exempt for people on income and disability assistance. EI benefits for parents caring for critically ill children also will be exempt.

“These changes will benefit about 200 parents on income and disability assistance each year and provide additional financial support while they are caring for a newborn, newly adopted, or critically ill child,” the government said in a statement.

Laura Johnston, a lawyer with the Community Legal Assistance Society, said they are “thrilled” with the change. “Things are still being finalized, but if the legal change goes through, then our clients will be withdrawing their complaint with the Human Rights Tribunal.”

Johnston said the Alford family has reached an undisclosed settlement with the province. “In terms of what happened with their individual family, that’s private,” she said. “But the legal changes will address all families going forward.”

B.C. NDP spokeswoman Michelle Mungall, MLA for Nelson-Creston, raised Alford’s case in the legislature. She said the provincial government could have fixed the problem long ago by adopting a poverty-reduction plan. “Government would have looked at these types of poverty-creating policies and gotten rid of them, which means that families like Jessica Alford … wouldn’t have had to fight tooth and nail, go to the human rights tribunal and call this government out.”

lkines@timescolonist.com

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