An injured single mom in Mission was shocked to receive a bill for $1,940 from Service Canada from an overpayment on her employment sickness benefits. As she recovers from a serious car accident, she is further stressed by the high monthly payment the government demanded.
In April 2012, Michelle Webber-Rykers lost her job as an employment counsellor in a province-wide restructuring. She went on employment insurance (EI) benefits to cover the bills and provide for her teenaged son.
Six months later, she suffered a serious motor vehicle accident. Her car was a write-off. After a week at Abbotsford hospital with fractures in her right knee and ankle, she went home and qualified for EI sickness benefits, as well as extensive support from ICBC.
Somewhere in the midst of multiple surgeries, countless visits to doctors and specialists in Abbotsford and Vancouver, and unending paperwork submissions to Service Canada and ICBC, Webber-Rykers ended up receiving the wrong type of EI benefit.
“They just kept sending cheques to me. I couldn’t keep an eye on it, I couldn’t keep track. I was in the hospital the first time with 30 milligrams of OxyContin every three hours. There’s no way I could focus,” said Webber-Rykers. “I can hardly remember the last year, to be honest, and then I get this bill.”
Service Canada – also known as Human Resources and Skills Development Canada (HRSDC) – notified Webber-Rykers that they were stopping her sickness benefits because she no longer qualified and that they overpaid her.
Then around July 2013, Webber-Rykers received an invoice for $1,940 from HRSDC, with a monthly minimum payment of $330 due immediately.
“I had to pay rent, I had to get food, and I had to raise my 16-year-old, let alone bills. This is not fair. I was doing everything right and healing accordingly,” she said. “It’s so frustrating, because I don’t think I deserve for them to have overpaid me, and now ask me for the money. After everything I’ve been through. There’s no way I could have followed that they were overpaying me.”
Webber-Rykers is still on crutches, with metal hardware holding her right knee in place and a foot-long scar reminding her that she is lucky to be alive. She speaks with a shaky voice and sometimes loses her thoughts. She doesn’t remember the accident over a year ago that is the cause of her daily migraines and lingering concussion.
Since Webber-Rykers received that initial bill from HRSDC, she has received another five invoices, and three phone calls from agency representatives across Canada.
The agency allegedly told Webber-Rykers to cough up the $330 monthly payment, or start losing her other government benefits, such as her child tax benefit, her income tax refund, and her GST rebate.
During the last phone call in early November, Webber-Rykers was told to re-apply to regular EI, and that she would forfeit her first two months of EI paycheques to pay down the debt.
“They are going to get the money out of me either way,” she said.
Going after overpayments and unpaid debts is standard practice for the government, and HRSDC is well within its rights to recover debts by withholding future payments, explained Ashley Ayliffe, workplace law lawyer with Baker Newby in Abbotsford and Chilliwack.
“They (HRSDC) have quite extraordinary powers to execute, and they usually have the beneficiary…over a barrel, because they’re the ones that hold the money that could be paid out in future benefits,” said Ayliffe.
Although Webber-Rykers still cannot work, technically she does not qualify for any benefit right now. She has reached the legal limit of the maximum 15 weeks of sickness benefits. In order to apply for regular EI, she must certify that she is ready and willing to return to work.
She is not alone in this limbo.
“I think the real problem is (medical) EI doesn’t have anything further for anybody after 15 weeks, and that’s a serious problem,” said Ayliffe. “Because after 15 weeks, you have to be better. And if you’re better, you can have benefits. And if you’re not, you can’t have benefits, but you also can’t find a job. That creates an obvious problem for people at week 16 who are still disabled that have used up their sickness benefits. They’ll need to have another source.”
The government expects such people to transition to welfare or permanent disability benefits. Webber-Rykers doesn’t quality for welfare because she still has her vehicle – an asset.
“That’s fine if you’re really at the low end of the poverty spectrum,” said Ayliffe. “But the reality is that a lot of people are living at or near the poverty level on a daily basis with their normal income. And when something like this happens, they still have some money in assets, and they just don’t quality for welfare…Finally when they’ve lost everything, they might qualify for welfare.”
After the Abbotsford News contacted HRSDC for a comment, Webber-Rykers received a call from the agency allegedly informing her that the debt will be written off. HRSDC was unable to provide a comment on the case by press firstname.lastname@example.org/alinakonevski