A $10,000 retention incentive for Nova Scotia nurses has some women who are on maternity leave stressed and frustrated as they await clarity on how the money will affect their employment insurance claims.

The Nova Scotia government announced the initiative in March, which includes a $10,000 bonus to registered nurses, licensed practical nurses and nurse practitioners.

There was initially confusion about whether nurses who are on maternity leave would receive the incentive. But when Premier Tim Houston clarified they would be included, those nurses began to wonder how it would affect their EI benefits while on leave.

For Danielle King, it means her benefits will be paused as Employment and Social Development Canada investigates.

“It’s a very nice gesture and I do appreciate it … but when it affects your other income too, that’s extremely frustrating and hard,” said King, a 28-year-old registered nurse who works at Colchester East Hants Health Centre in Truro.

Canadians collecting maternity or parental benefits after welcoming a child can receive 55 per cent of their salary, up to a maximum of $650 a week.

If someone earns money while receiving benefits, they can lose those benefits if the amount exceeds what is allowed under the regulations.

King said she spent the bulk of Monday on the phone with Employment and Social Development Canada and others as she attempted to find answers, all while caring for her eight-month-old son, Maverick.

She said she was sharing information with three of her colleagues who are in a similar situation, including Josie Chambers, who went on maternity leave in September 2022. 

Chambers, 28, said she is still receiving benefits because she hasn’t notified Employment and Social Development Canada of any changes to her earnings. The bonus is due to arrive Thursday.

She said the situation has caused considerable stress during an already stressful time in her life: becoming a new mother and caring for her baby.

Chambers feels the government should have thought more about women in her situation before rolling out the incentive.

“It’s super disappointing and super frustrating because we have all worked hard and it feels like we’ve rewound in time and we’re back to the 1950s where we’re being punished for having babies,” said Chambers, who is also a registered nurse at the Colchester East Hants Health Centre.

“The girls who are working right now are getting their regular day-to-day income and they received this bonus and don’t have to think twice about it.”

A woman in a pink shirt is holding a smiling baby.
Josie Chambers says while the bonus was well-meaning, it has caused undue stress as she scrambles to figure out how it will affect her benefits. (Submitted by Josie Chambers)

In an email to CBC News, a spokesperson for the provincial health department said the retention bonus was intended to show appreciation to health-care workers who have been working in challenging circumstances. 

“This bonus is considered income — not a gift — whether the employee is currently working or if they are on maternity/parental leave,” said Khalehla Perrault.

“Therefore, those who are working will see taxes deducted and those on maternity/parental leave will see a similar reduction in their employment insurance benefits.”

Perrault added these deductions are in line with federal income tax policy.

Bonus will likely impact claim: accountant

Jennifer Dunn, a tax partner with BDO Canada in Charlottetown, said she has helped people in similar situations. She said how the bonus impacts the women’s EI claims will depend on the nature of the bonus.

She said if the money is related to “production” — rewarding you for a job well done — then it would be allocated to the period in which you performed the work, and therefore would not affect your maternity leave claim.

But Dunn said based on the employment insurance regulations, she doesn’t feel the retention bonus would fall into that category.

She pointed to a section that states earnings paid to a claimant by an employer without the performance of work or “in consideration of the claimant returning to or beginning work” would be allocated to the period which they were paid.

It would therefore impact their benefits, since the earnings were allocated during their leave, and they would have to report those earnings.

“It seems pretty clear,” said Dunn of the regulations and how they would apply in this situation.

Program was ‘hasty:’ NDP

Claudia Chender, MLA for Dartmouth South and leader of the Nova Scotia NDP, said the nurses’ predicament is “just the latest example of the ways in which this incentive was not properly researched before it was rolled out.” 

She called the bonus “hasty” and said the government should be focusing more on long-term strategies for retaining nurses.

“You’re dealing with a reduced income if you’re receiving those benefits, and so it feels incredibly unfair that this ‘thank you’ would put someone in a compromised financial position,” said Chender.


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