In 2007, Sabrina Prokopiuk, 32, was laid off for four months from the Gap in Winnipeg’s Polo Park Shopping Centre while the store underwent renovations. Prokopiuk, who has Down’s syndrome, had worked at the store tidying changing rooms since November 1999. As far as her bosses were concerned, she was like any other employee. But when it came to collecting Employment Insurance, her Down’s had left her at a small disadvantage.
Prokopiuk had only been able to work 574 hours in the 12 months before the store went into mothballs. In Corner Brook, Nfld., or some other place with high unemployment, that would have qualified her easily for EI benefits. In Manitoba, it wasn’t quite enough; she needed 700. Manitoba’s Public Interest Law Centre is helping Prokopiuk appeal that EI board decision on the basis of the anti-discrimination provisions in the Charter of Rights. They have filed a memorandum with the Federal Court, which will designate an umpire to hear her Charter case, probably this fall or next spring.
EI uses hours of work to measure a claimant’s “attachment to the labour force.” PILC’s Byron Williams wants to know why there is geographic discrimination in its standards, but no accommodation for Prokopiuk’s disability. Down’s syndrome, no less than living in a high-unemployment region, makes it harder to find a job. And even if you get one, being limited to particular duties or having to coordinate shifts with a helper can make it hard to amass work hours.
“Sabrina worked at a series of unpaid jobs, trying to enter the labour force, before the Gap hired her,” he says. “Anyone would be hesitant to compare his ‘attachment’ to work with hers.”
Prokopiuk has moved on to new part-time jobs. Her mother Shirley says she sought legal assistance for her daughter because she felt that “a big injustice” was being done and she knew other adults with developmental disabilities had the same problem. “Some things about filing a claim really intimidated Sabrina,” says Shirley, “but she knows she’s helping other people.”