In response to the unprecedented crisis brought on by the pandemic, the federal government instituted a number of reforms to Canada’s Employment Insurance (EI) program in 2020. These reforms allowed greater access to EI, and increased the minimum benefit rate and length of the benefit.
For workers, these were vital reforms that ensured greater access and an adequate benefit floor. When the initial temporary reforms expired in Sept 2021, a year after they were brought in, the government instituted a temporary common national entrance requirement of 420 hours for workers to qualify for both regular and special benefits for a period of one year. This along with other important reforms to EI has led to greater eligibility and stronger benefits during the pandemic. Under the new EI reforms the average monthly disqualifications dropped from 86,000 to 44,000. Over the last year, while these reforms were in place the government committed to hold consultations about the future of the EI system.
Having a common national entrance requirement, set at a lower threshold, is a constructive way to ensure that more workers are eligible for EI. The Unemployment Insurance program was at its strongest after the passage of the Unemployment Insurance Act of 1971 which provided near universal coverage (roughly 96% of workers were covered). In 1977 the then Trudeau government in 1977 introduced the Variable Entrance Requirement (VER) to determine eligibility and length of benefit based on a region’s unemployment rate as a means to curb access to the benefit.
If the government lets the temporary reforms expire on September 24th, the pre-pandemic EI rules would come back into force. This would mean the return of the VER system, which would see most workers having to accumulate 700 insurable employment hours over a 52 week period to access EI. It would also mean the return of the requirement that workers use their separation monies before receiving EI, instituting the previous earnings threshold for self-employed and fishers, and the reintroduction of the possibility that any job separation in the qualifying period could impact a claimant’s eligibility and benefit rate. For workers looking to access EI special benefits, the requirement to access the benefits would increase from 420 to 600 hours.
The loss of these temporary measures would disproportionately impact low-wage workers, women, and racialized workers. The pre-pandemic EI system was not working for workers. Decades of rolling back eligibility, reducing the benefit, and government pilfering of the EI surplus has resulted in dwindling EI coverage and lower benefit rates.
Rather than going backwards on EI, the experience over the last two years has shown that workers need an EI system that promotes access and raises benefit levels. That is why ISAC, along with many other community and labour groups, is calling for a 360-hour or 12 week qualifying rule with 50 weeks of income support, an increase in the minimum benefit rate, access to EI for migrant workers, an end to misclassification of workers as independent contractors, the end of harsh disqualification rules, and the return of federal government contributions to EI.
Take action by emailing your MP and participating in the Day of Action to Stop the Sept. 24 EI benefit cliff & fix Employment Insurance NOW!