COVID-19 has sparked an important conversation about the nature of decent work and the inadequacies of Canada’s social safety net that is long overdue.
The vital roles played by jobs that many once considered undeserving of a minimum wage hike, and the importance of ensuring that all of us have enough money to pay the rent and put food on the table, are important lessons that we must all remember in the post-pandemic world.
Today, we are paying a huge price to stave off complete economic collapse and to help ensure all Canadians can pay their bills – but the roots of this financial challenge go far deeper than the pandemic itself.
Twenty years ago, the surplus in the Employment Insurance (EI) program hit $57 billion thanks to a series of policy changes meant to limit the number of workers able to access benefits in times of need.
For decades, workers were caught in the crossfire of an ideological debate that blamed them for their own joblessness and saw “generous” income supports as a disincentive to finding work.
Such attitudes helped drive the surplus in the EI program to hit that $57-billion mark – an unconscionable amount when so many people were in need.
It began with Brian Mulroney’s Conservatives in the 1980s and intensified under Jean Chretien’s Liberals, with sweeping changes that included rebranding EI from Unemployment Insurance, ending federal financial contributions, making workers who quit their jobs ineligible for benefits, reduced benefits and tighter eligibility criteria.
Not surprisingly, this led to a significant drop in EI coverage for unemployed workers, from 80 per cent in 1990 to 44.5 per cent in 2008.
The attacks continued under Stephen Harper’s Conservatives with unrealistic job search requirements and provisions that made it even more difficult for workers to access a program they’d paid into for years.
Then came the growth of the gig economy and more and more workers forced into precarious work. Even before this crisis, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives reported that only about one in four workers making less than $15 an hour was eligible for E.I.– despite having paid a greater share of their income into the program.
Because low-wage workers consist primarily of women, racialized workers, migrants, youth and workers with disabilities, this poses serious equity concerns as well. And because quitting a job leaves workers ineligible for EI, many are forced to stay in bad or dangerous jobs and at the mercy of exploitative employers.
The massive EI surplus was diverted to government coffers, and the pain felt by unemployed workers unable to access EI was used to balance budgets, fill funding gaps in other programs and pay for tax cuts for corporations. Today, there’s only $4.9 billion left in the surplus.
If we hadn’t already spent most of it, the EI surplus could have been used to pay for the entire cost of the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) program, currently estimated to cost $24 billion, and much of the $71 billion to support the Federal Wage Subsidy Program.
The fact is, a strong, comprehensive and robust EI system that provides for all workers could have avoided the need to develop any overlapping programs.
That said, it’s worth acknowledging that Canada has managed to create a new social program in a matter of weeks and fix some elements when glaring gaps are exposed. This is to be applauded and speaks to the collective power we can harness when there is the political will to build a strong social safety net. There will be no excuses in future.
While EI has expanded over the years to provide important additional benefits, such as sickness and parental benefits, as well as job training, we must not lose focus of the program’s ultimate purpose – supporting workers financially during temporary job loss.
This crisis is now providing a critical opportunity for the government to make EI work again. There are immediate systemic fixes that would make EI simpler and more accessible for all workers. These include a standard 360 hours eligibility threshold, increasing the income replacement rate to at least 75 per cent, eliminating all waiting periods, allowing workers who need to quit a job access benefits and increasing the duration of EI sick leave to 26 weeks and regular benefits to 50 weeks.
In times of economic hardship, we need a strong income security program that protects all workers, regardless of region, job status, skill level and income. In times of economic hardship, no one should be left behind.