Workers Speak About Their
Problems with the Employment Insurance Measures
The $82 billion aid package for Canadians
announced by the Trudeau government on March 18, to cope with the
COVID-19 pandemic, includes $27 billion for direct supports to
Canadians. Some of the measures concern Employment Insurance (EI) and
it is already clear that they are inadequate.
Access to EI is a
problem that successive governments have refused to address. Only about
40 per cent of unemployed workers are eligible for EI. During this
crisis, what is needed is a social program that provides a guaranteed
income to all those who find themselves without a job. In March alone,
the projected unemployment rate is expected to leap to over seven per
cent, with an additional 300,000 workers becoming unemployed. These are
workers who could all be mobilized to work safely in public enterprises
serving the people and economy at Canadian standard wages and benefits.
Instead, the government has created two programs -- the
Emergency Care Benefit and the Emergency Support Benefit -- making it
clear that these are temporary and of an exceptional character.
There are three EI measures in the aid package:
1. The government is waiving the one-week waiting
period for those workers in imposed quarantine who are eligable to
claim EI sickness benefits. This is a temporary measure that takes
effect as of March 15.
2. The government is waiving the requirement that
a medical certificate be provided to access EI sickness benefits.
3. The government is implementing the EI Work
Sharing Program, which provides EI benefits to workers who agree to
reduce their normal working hours as a result of developments beyond
the control of their employers, extending the eligibility of such
agreements from 38 to 76 weeks, easing eligibility requirements, and
streamlining the application process.
For example, the government is waiving the waiting
period before a second request for shared work can be made. This was
announced by the Prime Minister on March 11, and repeated on March 18.
Those who need to access these measures say there
are immediate issues that require answers. Activists who work with
defence organizations of unemployed workers are trying to sort out
various things. For example, there is no announced extension of the
period of time during which workers will receive benefits.
In 2018, as a
measure to address the problem of the "black hole" faced by seasonal
workers -- the period of time during which these workers are without
income after having exhausted EI benefits and not yet being back at
work -- the Trudeau government offered supplemental income to those
workers who would get training during that period. This was not a sound
measure because training does not solve the problem of the "black hole"
facing workers who live in areas in which seasonal work is the main or
only work. And what will happen to these workers now that the training
institutions have closed because of the pandemic?
Workers in the oil industry in the west are also
facing a serious problem. Unemployment in their ranks is increasing
because of the crisis in that industry, a crisis compounded by the
COVID-19 pandemic. The duration of their benefits and the benefits of
all workers should cover their actual needs within this crisis
Can we expect that these workers will be protected
under the new Emergency Support Benefit which is said to be a program
for those who are not eligible for EI? No details have been provided.
While they are
struggling to find out exactly what benefits the new Emergency Care
Benefit and the Emergency Support Benefit will provide and how to
access them, the defence organizations of unemployed workers
maintain that immediate reforms are needed in the EI regime to make
sure that all unemployed workers are protected.
For example, they are demanding that the Canadian
government address the issue of the long delays (sometimes many months)
before a benefit claimant gets a decision on their claim. This is far
from a simple matter of waiving the waiting period so that workers get
the benefits to which they are entitled. Service Canada people are
already overwhelmed and have been for some time. This is a problem
which must be addressed on a permanent basis. How will the new claims
be processed in a timely fashion by a system already seriously
Defence organizations are also demanding that the
threshold of accessibility be drastically reduced so that more workers
are eligible for EI benefits. At present, a worker needs to have 600
insurable hours of work to qualify for sickness benefits. For regular
benefits, the number of insurable hours required to qualify runs
between 420 and 700 hours, depending on the official regional
unemployment rate decreed by the government. This requirement is
problematic because it is an arbitrary figure arrived at in part by
merging regions that may have very little in common in terms of their
industries and economic development. Of equal concern is the fact that
less than one per cent of workers who are called self-employed are
eligible for EI because they are considered to be outside of an
employer-employee relationship. So what becomes of all of these
existing problems and how are individual workers supposed to navigate
all of this?
One of the defence organizations in Quebec, the
Autonomous Movement in Solidarity with the Unemployed (MASSE), is
demanding that the threshold of eligibility across the country be 350
hours of work, that benefits last a minimum of 35 weeks (currently they
range from 14 to 45 weeks) and that they be based on a minimum of 70
per cent of the average weekly earnings (currently 55 per cent). Other
defence organizations have different specific targets while also
demanding that the threshold of accessibility be drastically reduced.
The National Council of the Unemployed, also based in Quebec, and the
Action Committee on Employment Insurance for Seasonal Workers in New
Brunswick are demanding an immediate threshold of eligibility of 420
hours of work for 35 weeks of benefits for areas with seasonal
economies. The threshold is currently often higher than 650 hours in
these areas depending on the official unemployment rate declared by the
measures taken by the government will not miraculously get rid of all
these problems unemployed workers face as a result of the
fend-for-oneself system governments have enforced during the cutbacks,
which are an integral part of neo-liberal "austerity" measures. This
means that during the crisis, the demands of the defence organizations
of the unemployed and organized workers must be taken seriously.
Appropriate measures must be taken which actually deliver for the
working people. The direction has to be to sustain and guarantee the
livelihood of all as a matter of right, implementing modern social
programs through which people can affirm their humanity. While the
measures sound good on paper, those who face the crisis of unemployment
know that they are forced to fend for themselves and, in the end, are
not provided with a living stipend. They are not, like the deputy prime
minister kept repeating, small problems of implementation that
Canadians should put up with in the name of the greater good.
Not One Person Must Be Left
to Fend for Themselves!
Every Unemployed Worker Must Receive a Suitable Stipend!
Pierre Chénier is Secretary of
the Workers' Centre of the Communist party of Canada (Marxist-Leninist).
This article was published in
Volume 50 Number 9 - March 21, 2020
Workers Speak About Their
Concerns: Problems with the Employment Insurance Measures - Pierre Chénier