By Seong-gee Um
Jobs and income were central issues in the recent federal election campaign. Concerns about the "shaky economy," the rising cost of living, job losses and jobs for young people were among the top ten election issues that Canadians wanted the federal party leaders to talk about during the election campaign. As soon as the campaign launched, economy and jobs were the top election issues on Twitter. Over the 11-week election campaign, all the federal parties addressed jobs and income security through a range of different proposals. Importantly, Employment Insurance (EI) was on the front burner.
The EI system is an important component of Canada's social safety net. EI provides financial support to workers who lose their jobs or who need to take time off from work to look after themselves and their newborn child or sick family members. These programs offer more than just temporary income support. EI programs can increase our productivity through helping unemployed Canadians regain employment that matches their expertise and supporting new parents and others to return to work after spending crucial time with their loved ones when they're needed most. EI also promotes good health and well-being by providing time to recover from illness and by helping Canadians financially in stressful times of job and income loss so that they do not sink deeper into poverty.
Over the last two decades, however, a series of changes to EI as well as labour market shifts have made it more difficult for Canadian workers to access EI benefits. In the 1990s, EI reforms tightened benefit rates, eligibility requirements and how long workers could receive support. As a consequence, the proportion of unemployed Canadians who received benefits was cut nearly in half between 1990 and 1997. In the 2008 recession, only 45 per cent of Canadian men and 39 per cent of Canadian women were eligible to receive regular EI benefits. EI reforms implemented in 2012 introduced tougher eligibility requirements, especially for repeat EI claimants. Currently, only 40 per cent of Canadians are eligible to receive EI. Given Canada's highly gendered and racialized labour market, women and racialized workers find it more difficult to access EI when they lose jobs or need time off work.
Thankfully, fixing the erosion of Canada's EI system was featured in this federal election. The Liberal platform pledged to reduce the waiting time for EI cheques from two to one week, which will benefit all EI claimants. The Liberals promised to eliminate the so-called 910-hour eligibility penalty -- requiring new and returning workers to work a minimum 910 hours before they are eligible for EI. This will particularly benefit new Canadians and younger workers entering the workforce as well as new parents and family caregivers, mostly women, returning to work.
The Liberals committed to expand the compassionate care benefits and lower eligibility requirements. As our population is aging, this will support many Canadians who need to take time off work to care for their sick family members, especially frail seniors. The Liberal platform also promised to offer more flexible options for parental benefits and to extend the leave from 12 to 18 months. This may be exciting news for some future parents but the catch is that extended benefits come at the cost of lower monthly cheques, making this option less accessible for lower income Canadians.
There is much to like in the Liberals' planned EI reforms. What is missing, however, is a plan to boost basic benefit amounts. Current EI benefits max out at $524 per week, a level that is simply too low to meet the actual cost of living for most Canadians, especially those in urban centres with high living costs like Toronto. Expanding EI coverage, together with enhancing benefits, will be the best way forward for all Canadians.
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