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As the Bank of Canada seeks to raise the unemployment rate, Employment Insurance is often not enough to support those out of work, or is out of their reach all together.
“There are economic storms ahead and for many workers, a difficult winter,” wrote the Inter-provincial Employment Insurance Working Group in a letter penned to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his cabinet dated December 12. The group is calling on the federal government for urgent action on Employment Insurance (EI) reform.
Without an adequate EI system, the upcoming “economic storms” could mean disaster for many low-income people, the groups is arguing.
Kevin Love, the senior lawyer at the Community Legal Assistance Society in B.C. (CLAS), said that for many people, the current EI system does not do enough. CLAS was one of the many organizations that signed the joint community and labour letter for EI reform.
“What we see is people who are paying into the system off every dollar they earn but then when they need it, the system’s not there for not there for them.” Love said, “The situation is particularly bad for women, and racialized folks.”
Love emphasized that only 40 per cent of unemployed workers have access to EI, leaving many out to dry when unemployment rises.
The working group is calling on the government to expand access to EI benefits. Right now, the number of hours of insurable employment required to qualify for EI is based on unemployment rates. In many regions, this means many workers need to have worked at least 700 hours to qualify for EI, which the working group said is too high. The working group also wrote that the disqualification rules are “harsh” and leave out many vulnerable workers. Migrant workers and employees misclassified and independent contractors are also excluded from the benefit.
Jared Ong, an organizer and case worker with the Workers’ Action Centre in Toronto, said that the current system works for those who have permanent full-time jobs. However, all other workers are left in a state of precarity. Ong said that when EI applications go bad for workers, they go “very, very bad.”
Ong recently worked with a cleaner in the food processing sector who was injured at work. He said this worker returned to work with the understanding that there would be accommodations for his injury. However, the employer did not accommodate this cleaner appropriately and he was forced to quit his job. Ong said that when the worker first applied for EI, he was rejected.
“Just recently, during the appeal, he was told Employment Insurance accepts his position. It took months from the time that he actually had to quit to get a successful EI claim, which is too long,” Ong said. “As a result, this worker ended up doing gig work food delivery to try to make ends meet during the time.”
Ong said that properly addressing these difficulties caused by the accessibility of EI will promote decent work for all.
“I feel that people would have a lot more confidence leaving bad jobs. If people knew that they can get by for a few months after leaving a bad job, they would be much more willing to leave bad bosses,” Ong said.
While expanding access to EI will help many workers. The reforms the inter-provincial working group wants extends beyond eligibility. The group is also calling for the benefit rate to be substantially increased.
“Even on the EI rate right now, which is only 55 per cent of your weekly income maximum, it’s hard for workers to pay the rent, buy food and support their families,” Love from CLAS said. “We need the rates to go up. But even that little bit is better than nothing, which is what a lot of the workers are getting right now. It can truly mean disaster for workers and their families when they have nothing at all to support themselves when they find themselves unemployed.”
The Liberal government promised in 2021 that if re-elected, they would build an EI system that works for everyone. The government published a report in April of this year saying that EI access needs to be improved. As 2022 draws to a close, workers are still waiting for this modernized EI system.
The Inter-provincial EI Working Group has said that the system is the single most powerful automatic stabilizer. Still, as inflation rises and Canadians need financial support more and more, the government is still dragging its feet.
“The government has promised to reform this system. We’re taking them at their word,” Love said. “We think they’re serious and they’re going to do this. We don’t have a date and we don’t know when we’re going to see the change that’s been promised. But workers need to have it happen sooner rather than later.”
With each day, the situation for unemployed workers becomes more dire. On Monday December 19, labour organizations planned a pan-Canadian day of action to ensure workers’ needs will not be ignored.
“EI reform means security and it means stability,” Love said. “This is one of our most important social programs and serves a really important purpose in providing financial help in what can be the worst time of a worker’s life.”