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The days of standing by unemployed workers are long gone


Four out of ten jobless workers get nothing out of the plan—no matter how much they paid into it or for how long. What benefits workers do get are skimpy and end too soon.

A January 2019 report written by political scientist Donna Wood for the Atkinson Foundation outlines how bad it is. Wood sets out six major shortcomings in what Employment Insurance has become:

  • Discrimination: Many workers pay into the program but cannot ever draw benefits from it.
  • Adequacy: Benefits are inadequate to meet workers’ needs during a jobless period.
  • Coverage: There is a gap between those who are eligible for EI and those who need it.
  • Inequalities in eligibility:  In some regions workers are required to have worked 420 hours to be eligible for benefits, in other regions the requirement can be as much as 700 hours of work to qualify.
  • Inequalities in benefits: Some regions and industries contribute more and benefit more than others. This undermines solidarity toward the program as a whole.
  • Governance: The representatives of workers and employers—the people who finance the program—have been sidelined in the decision-making process.

None of this is how it was supposed to be and once was.

A good idea made bad

The original Unemployment Insurance Plan began in 1940. It was worth something—not perfect—but something worth having. Benefits were not hard to get and were enough to tide you over if you were thrown out of work, and enough to free you to quit a job that was killing you, so you could look for one that wouldn’t.

However, by 1990 all pretense of putting workers needs first was gone: the federal government stopped paying into the Unemployment Insurance fund altogether. The fund still took in many billions more than it paid out. The government glommed on to this so-called “surplus” to fund everything but programs for the unemployed.

By 1996, unemployed workers were the enemy. The neo-liberal agenda orthodoxy said helping workers ride out unemployment could be a "real drag on the economy". More restrictions were brought in and Unemployment Insurance was renamed. It  magically became Employment Insurance—as if not mentioning unemployment would wish it away. It didn’t.

Far too many, get far too little, far too often

Wood points out far too many unemployed workers, get far too little, far too often.

“People in precarious jobs in provinces with low unemployment like Ontario pay endlessly into a program that offers them little or no hope of ever deriving a benefit,” she wrote.

“People who paid into EI for more than 10 consecutive years tell stories of missing meals while continuing to pay into EI. These workers simply do not obtain sufficient insurable weeks.”

The drive to choke off the number of unemployed workers who could claim benefits resulted in the disqualification of people who quit their job voluntarily or who were fired for cause, and by basing eligibility on the number of weeks worked to the number of hours worked, a switch that excluded many part-time workers.

“These access changes were particularly hard on women,” writes Wood, “who, more than men, leave their jobs for family reasons or to avoid workplace sexual harassment. In addition, far more women work part time and therefore qualify for benefits less often under the new rules.”

Fewer than 40 per cent of workers now qualify for benefits when they need them. The portion of unemployed women who qualify is even lower.

The Canadian Labour Congress has advocated for a single qualifying threshold of 360 hours of work that would apply everywhere in the country.

Employment Insurance has been turned into a cruel joke on all working people. The fact that reality is so easily accepted is a sad measure of how little the lives of working folks now matter in the great scheme of things in Canada today.