In the News
Challenges Unemployed Workers Face in 2022
Defending the Dignity and Rights of All
France Simard is the coordinator of the Unemployment Action Movement in Lac Saint-Jean, Quebec.
Workers’ Forum: Can you explain the problem of the extremely long delays that people are facing at this time in receiving their Employment Insurance (EI) benefits?
France Simard: We raised the problem publicly before the holidays because we had never seen a similar situation since we became a committee in 2001. We were seeing delays of sometimes more than six months.
These delays are due to the theft of social insurance numbers from Desjardins. There have been many fraudulent applications for EI benefits. As soon as there are fraudulent claims, with several claims in the same file with the same name and the same social insurance number, everything stops. They have to check — is it the right claimant? is it the one who applied? — and it takes a long time. Until that is verified, the worker gets nothing. The claimant is a victim twice over. He is the victim of identity theft whereby his social security number is being passed around, and he is the one who is penalized because he is waiting months and months for his case to clear.
There are delays in processing other claims because of this. Agents are so focussed on identity theft that other files — for example records of employment which say “voluntary departure” or “dismissal” so they have to speak with the claimant — are also blocked because they do not have enough staff.
I can tell you that for the month of January in Lac-Saint-Jean, 156 new files were opened and most of them, I would say as much as 90 per cent, are delays in benefits due to identity theft.
This is catastrophic and shocking because the claimant is doubly victimized. I think it’s impossible that there isn’t a way to resolve the cases in a manner that doesn’t punish the claimant.
We feel like we are begging on behalf of the claimants when EI is their right.
When someone’s file is held up, I have seen cases where the claimant is several months without any income. The delays are getting longer and longer. The agents tell us that they are now settling the files for the month of October. When we call them, they tell us that if the claimants are not in trouble, if they do not have children or creditors who are harassing them, they can still wait.
The unemployed already have to wait a month for their first check to arrive. The unemployed know this, they manage to organize. But now that the delays are three, four, five and even six months, it is no longer possible. The unemployed are in a desperate situation where there is nothing left to eat.
There are many people who have needs now that they would never have under normal conditions, but now they need food aid. We now have to deal with food assistance. We have a local Member of the National Assembly who opened a fund, “Mon voisin je m’en occupe” (I am taking care of my neighbour), and we have organizations that help these people. We work in alliance with the organizations for food assistance. We also refer recipients to Budget Services, the organizations that help manage a budget, to make payment arrangements in some cases and help them put together a budget to get out of their impasse.
There are new staff being hired, but these new staff cannot handle identity theft cases. It has to be an integrity officer who is of a higher level. It takes time to get the staff able to work in integrity to do the investigations. Now they have trained people so they can respond faster. We will see in the next few weeks if this will help to unblock the files. It is important to understand that Services Canada operates in levels. There is the first level where the agents solve small problems when the person applies for EI. With each new intervention, another level comes into play. Since we are now dealing with identity theft, it is the integrity department that has to deal with it because more formal investigations have to be done. The existence of all these levels means that the files accumulate delays.
And this situation is occurring throughout Quebec.
We are working to get the files unblocked. Our starting point is that the claimant should not be punished. In our opinion, it would be possible to unblock the files and do the investigation afterwards. We need to put more people in charge to get the files unblocked.
WF: What is the update with the EI reform that the federal government has committed to do?
FS: That’s the other big challenge of the year. We saw during the pandemic that the EI system is not meeting the needs of people. We know that already only 40 per cent of the unemployed were eligible for EI and with the pandemic, what was shown was the disaster of EI, that the system is not accessible. If EI met the need, they wouldn’t have had to set up so many emergency programs.
The government is talking about a major reform that should come in the spring. We have our demands and we are making them heard wherever possible. Unemployed workers have the right to a just and universal employment insurance regime. The government is organizing roundtables across Canada, but it’s hard to get your voice heard. These are roundtables where they invite people to discuss EI. Quite often they will sit down with groups, unions and other organizations but I think I was one of the only ones from a grassroots organization that has been invited to a table so far. Not many grassroots organizations, the unemployed advocacy organizations, are invited to the tables. Yet, we are well established in Quebec. We should be invited to participate in these round tables. Each territory, each region has its own particular characteristics.
Our voice and our demands must be taken into account.
In conclusion, I would say that we have both feet in the present in terms of deadlines, and both eyes turned towards the future to get the reform.
They are :
— a single 350-hour eligibility threshold, or 13 weeks,
— a benefit rate of at least 70 per cent of insurable earnings, based on the best 12 weeks worked,
— a minimum threshold of 35 weeks of benefits,
— the abolition of total EI exclusions for workers who voluntarily leave their job or are fired,
— access to regular EI benefits in the case of having lost one’s job, irrespective of whether one received maternity and parental benefits.
(Workers’ Forum, posted February 18, 2022. Translated from the original French by Workers’ Forum.)