Photo: The Canadian Press
Workers applying for employment insurance benefits must qualify based on pre-pandemic rules starting Sunday, when the temporary measures are set to expire.
The Liberal government has promised to reform EI and address gaps in the program, but temporary measures put in place during the pandemic will expire before reform is implemented.
Labor advocates, as well as NDP and Bloc Québécois members of parliament, have called on the federal government to extend the temporary measures, which extended access to more workers.
During question period in the House of Commons on Wednesday, Bloc Québécois MP Louise Chabot asked Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough to extend the measures until a full reform of the program is implemented.
“The minister received a mandate to implement a complete reform of EI this summer, but she did not do it,” Chabot said. “Will the minister at least extend the temporary measures?”
In response, Qualtrough said the temporary changes to EI were pandemic-related measures and were no longer necessary.
“I can assure (Chabot) and everybody else that by the end of the year you know what the vision for EI is,” Qualtrough said.
Under the temporary measures, workers qualify for EI based on a national requirement of having 420 insurable employment hours, whereas workers would normally need between 420 and 700 hours depending on the regional unemployment rate.
Many experts support the move toward a national requirement, saying variable requirements are unfair to workers laid off in a low-unemployment region.
In addition, wages received upon separation from a job, such as severance pay, under the temporary measures are not deducted from benefits.
On Thursday, the National Council of Unemployed Workers held a joint news conference with Chabot, NDP Deputy Leader Alexandre Boulerice and other labor leaders on Parliament Hill about the expiration of the measures.
Qualtrough met with labor leaders Thursday and pledged to extend EI sick pay from 15 to 26 weeks before the end of the year, a change promised in the 2022 budget.
Milan Bernard, an organizational adviser at the National Council of Unemployed Workers, said Qualtrough expressed a commitment to reforming EI, but no timeline.
“We don’t really know what’s going to happen,” Bernard said.
Experts and advocates say EI reform has been needed for years, but it was the COVID-19 pandemic that widened the gaps in the program.
Faced with a major disruption to the economy at the onset of the pandemic, EI was unable to deliver benefits to the staggering number of people suddenly out of work as shutdowns came into place.
In a report published in August 2020, Jennifer Robson, an associate professor of political leadership at Carleton University, found that EI had failed to cover enough Canadians while also failing on the administrative and technological fronts.
The shortages prompted the federal government to introduce the Canada Emergency Response Benefit to provide rapid emergency assistance to Canadians.
In 2021, the Liberals campaigned on a promise to modernize EI, pledging to expand the program to cover self-employed workers and address gaps, including those highlighted by COVID-19.
Qualtrough’s mandate letter from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau asked the minister to “put forward and begin implementing a plan to modernize the EI system for the 21st century” by the summer of 2022.
Employment and Social Development Canada completed its final round of public consultations on EI reform in July. However, there are no details on when the legislation on the EI reform will be presented.
The list of complaints about the program’s current structure is long, from eligibility requirements to funding to administrative technology.
A central concern of labor lawyers and experts is that too few may gain access to the program.
According to a Statistics Canada report published in 1998, the proportion of unemployed Canadians receiving EI benefits peaked at 74 per cent in 1989. That number fell sharply in the years that followed, in part due to reforms to the program in 1990 ‘ers.
While the temporary changes expanded access to EI, about 40 percent of unemployed Canadians received employment insurance before the pandemic.
Unifor president Lana Payne, who has advocated for the temporary measures to be extended, said “we cannot go back to a broken system.”
“(If) we go back to pre-COVID requirements, you’re going to have a lot of people potentially falling through the cracks,” Payne said.