October 6, 2021 - No. 92

Perfunctory Consultation on Employment Insurance Reform

Reform Must Be Based on the Demands
of Workers and Their Organizations

Our Demand Is for a Just and Universal Employment Insurance Regime
- Interview, France Simard

"Rise Up for Long-Term Care" Rallies Call for Government Action to Protect Seniors in Care

Perfunctory Consultation on Employment Insurance Reform

Reform Must Be Based on the Demands of Workers and Their Organizations

In a press briefing, September 1, 2021, during the federal election, activists for the rights of the unemployed spoke to the kind of changes needed to the Employment Insurance system.

A perfunctory federal government consultation on Employment Insurance (EI) reform, described as the modernization of the EI regime, concerns all Canadian workers. It was launched in August 2021, shortly before the federal election was called and began with an online questionnaire which now closes on October 8. However, far from modernizing the EI regime in a manner which favours the working people, the premise of the reform is the needs of the labour market. This is not an acceptable basis for reforming the EI system in a way that benefits workers and society.

The goal of Employment Insurance should not be to adapt workers and the EI system to the vagaries of the labour market, but to protect workers by providing a decent Canadian standard income to those who have been victimized by it. The labour market is an instrument in the hands of global private interests competing with each other for maximum profits at the expense of national, regional and local economies. It treats workers as disposable. Keeping EI eligibility and benefits conditional on contributing to this "labour market" means that the massive exclusion of unemployed workers from the Employment Insurance system will continue.

The statement announcing the consultation, signed by the Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Disability Inclusion and two commissioners of the Canada Employment Insurance Commission, confirms this. It reads: "It is in the shared interest of workers, employers and the Government of Canada to revitalize and modernize Canada's Employment Insurance (EI) system so that it can respond to the changing nature of work, and truly complement the needs of the current labour market."

In addition, the COVID-19 pandemic has, amongst other things, dramatically demonstrated the failure of the EI system to protect workers in crisis situations.

A socially acceptable EI system reform must have as its starting point the long-standing demands of workers and their organizations, in particular the organizations working in defence of the unemployed, whose aim is precisely to ensure humane living conditions for all unemployed workers when they are thrown out of production.

Workers' Forum calls on all concerned, organized and unorganized, to speak out against this reform and demand that EI meet the needs of working people not private interests for whom workers are disposable. In this issue, Workers' Forum is publishing an interview with the Coordinator of the Unemployment Action Movement in Lac Saint-Jean, Quebec, which provides information on the current EI rules and reiterates the demands put forward by the movement in defence of the rights of the unemployed.

(Photo: SLSJ CSN )

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Our Demand Is for a Just and Universal
Employment Insurance Regime

France Simard is the Coordinator, Unemployment Action Movement, Lac Saint-Jean, Quebec

Workers' Forum: New rules came into effect on September 26 concerning eligibility for employment insurance (EI) as well as the amount and duration of benefits. Can you summarize them for us?

France Simard: First, there is a new rule that establishes a universal standard of 420 hours of work to qualify for benefits. This differs with the pre-pandemic period, when it varied according to the official unemployment rate in each region. This single 420-hour standard is to remain in effect for one year.

However, the number of weeks of benefits a claimant is entitled to remains the same as it was before the pandemic, based on the official unemployment rate in the region where the claimant lives. [At the height of the pandemic, a minimum unemployment rate of 13.1 per cent was attributed to all EI economic regions and claimants could receive up to a maximum 50 weeks of benefits -- Editor] For example, someone who only worked the minimum 420 hours is now going to be entitled to 14 weeks of benefits, and that number may vary depending on the unemployment rate in the region where they reside. And the number of weeks of benefits can reach a maximum of 45 weeks. Again, the hours worked and the unemployment rate in the area are taken into consideration.

As for the benefit rate, those claiming EI between September 26 and November 20 are to receive a minimum benefit of $300 per week. As of November 21, the rate reverts back to the pre-pandemic calculation of 55 per cent of gross earnings, based on the best weeks worked by the claimant. The number of weeks worked taken into consideration will vary between 14 and 22.

WF: What's your assessment of these measures?

FS: The 420 hours as a universal standard is acceptable. We've been asking for a universal measure for all of Canada for years. We want it lowered but it's an improvement. We don't know what it will be after the year is over.

We are currently in a transition period because the Liberals have promised to reform EI. It's hard to predict what will happen after this transition year. The government has initiated a consultation with regard to changing the regime. As part of the consultation, an online questionnaire was posted prior to the election and will remain there until October 8. After that, according to the government, there will be so-called targeted consultations. Whatever that means is anyone's guess.

We don't want a phony consultation and the questionnaire is phony. We've been consulting for 20 years, presenting briefs. We want to work, to discuss concrete issues.

We want nothing to do with a consultation used as a means to justify not carrying out the needed reform.

We want to work on the basis of a working document with potential solutions. We believe that employers and workers, those who contribute financially to the regime, must be represented. This includes the unions as well as advocacy groups. We are the voice of a large number of claimants, who go through us. We know the problems on the ground. Consultation must take place at the national level as well as in the regions. The reality in the regions is not the same as in big cities.

WF: Can you give examples of how the questionnaire is phony?

FS: It's very biased. At the end of each section, those signing are asked if they're willing to pay more in EI contributions if this or that aspect of the regime is improved. No one is going to say yes. Moreover, with all the prejudice circulating right now, with regard to the regime supposedly being too generous, that it encourages people not to work, now is not the time for such a questionnaire.

WF: Can you reiterate the main demands of MASSE (Autonomous and Solidarity Movement of the Unemployed) that the Unemployment Action Movement, Lac Saint-Jean is part of?

FS: Our first demand is a single 350-hour eligibility threshold, or 13 weeks. The second is a benefit rate of at least 70 per cent of insurable earnings, based on the best 12 weeks worked. The third is a minimum threshold of 35 weeks of benefits, which, among other things, would eliminate the black hole for seasonal workers, that period of time when they are without income because their benefits have been exhausted but they have not yet gone back to their job. The fourth is the abolition of total EI exclusions for workers who voluntarily leave their job or are fired. The fifth is access to regular employment insurance benefits in the case of having lost one's job, irrespective of whether one received maternity and parental benefits. Women who have just given birth and lose their job while receiving benefits under the Quebec Parental Insurance Plan (QPIP), or immediately thereafter, are not entitled to EI. If they lose their job, it's not their fault. This is discrimination against parents, mostly women but men as well, because they also receive parental and paternity benefits.

Our demand is for a just and universal employment insurance regime.

(Translated from the original french by Workers' Forum)

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"Rise Up For Long-Term Care" Rallies Call for Government Action to Protect Seniors in Care

Queen's Park, October 4, 2021

Rallies were held in 18 Ontario cities, including at Queen's Park on October 4, the first day of the fall sitting of the Ontario Provincial Legislature. Organized by the Ontario Health Coalition (OHC), the aim of the "Rise Up for Long-Term Care" rallies was to publicly highlight the lack of any action by the Ford government to protect seniors living in long-term care (LTC) facilities. People who participated, mainly at the constituency offices of Conservative MPPs, denounced the callous disregard of the Ford government for the lives of seniors living in LTC facilities and their loved ones which has been brought into sharp focus by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Close to 4,000 Ontario seniors have died of COVID-19 in LTC homes, the majority in homes operated for profit by private owners. Numerous reports, a public inquiry and actions by workers and their unions and families of seniors have highlighted the terrible conditions in many of the LTC homes, including severe staff shortages, lack of protective equipment for workers, cuts to care and meal programs and overall neglect.

In the face of all the evidence, the Ford government has done absolutely nothing to protect seniors and workers and improve conditions. The Ford government has instead strengthened the hand of the private owners, enabling them to continue exploiting the workers and compromising the security, well-being and health of the workers and their residents. Speakers at the action at Queen's Park and others across the province were united in calling for the defeat of the Ford Conservatives at the next provincial election on June 2, 2022.

Health care workers, union representatives and leaders of the OHC spoke out on the track record of the Ford government. Some quoted Premier Ford's public statement when news of mounting deaths hit the headlines in the early days of the pandemic, that he would place an "iron ring" around LTC homes to protect the vulnerable seniors living there. As it turns out, one speaker said, the only "iron ring" Ford placed was one that protected the "vultures" who own and run these facilities to squeeze out maximum profits on the backs of the workers, residents and their families. They cited Bill 218 which was rushed through the legislature last fall which indemnifies long-term care homes against lawsuits for negligence resulting in harm and death in the COVID-19 pandemic, making it more difficult for families to seek justice for their loved ones who died or were harmed in other ways.

Furthermore, to add insult to injury, these same companies are now being given 30-year extensions on their operating licenses which allow them to continue to operate with impunity. Because of the low wages and terrible working conditions, it is reported that at least 30 per cent of personal support workers are planning to leave their jobs, which will further degrade the quality of care for residents.

At Queen's Park, Natalie Mehra, the Executive Director of the OHC, and others, denounced the empty promises, lies and smoke-and-mirrors tactics aimed at bamboozling the public into believing that action is being taken to address the serious crisis in long-term care. She noted that there has been no monitoring of any sort of the running of these facilities to ensure a consistent level of care. In fact since the Ford government came to power it has abandoned inspections altogether and enabled the owners of privately run homes to monitor themselves with disastrous results. Not a single owner has been held to account, she pointed out.

One of the speakers at the Queen's Park rally, Dr. Vivian Stamatopoulos, an LTC researcher and advocate, stated "When are we going to get a lick of justice? The Ford government is spitting on the graves of the people who died."

The families have not given up and many continue to seek justice through lawsuits against the government. Lawyer Melissa Miller who represents many families whose loved ones died in the LTC homes during the pandemic said that she has reviewed countless documents and reports calling for reforms in the manner in which LTC facilities are run in Ontario but absolutely nothing has been done.

A number of speakers at the rally at Queen's Park denounced the government's plan to continue to expand private long-term care capacity and to look at the recruitment of temporary foreign workers with little training to work as personal support workers and in other jobs. The plan was announced by Minister of Long Term Care Rod Phillips on August 12 in the name of alleviating the crisis in LTC homes.

The rallies expressed the determination of the OHC, unions representing LTC workers, family members and support groups to continue the fight for an end to private-for-profit care and for a publicly funded and publicly run long-term care system in Ontario that is adequately staffed so that seniors can live with dignity, safety and security.

(Photos: WF, OHC)

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