OTTAWA -- It was a barely noticed peculiarity in the government's latest employment insurance numbers — just 17 per cent of unemployed workers in Toronto are collecting EI, among the lowest rates in the city's history as it confronts a higher jobless rate than the provincial and national average.
There are more than 307,000 jobless Torontonians, according to the latest Statistics Canada figures. Fewer than 55,000 of them are collecting EI in a city with an 8.9 per cent jobless rate.
Experts point out that while many of the jobless are chronically unemployed citizens who don't qualify for EI, others are part of an evolving urban labour market that isn't being reflected by Canada's EI system.
Matthew Mendelsohn, director of the University of Toronto's Mowat Centre, says EI is out of step with labour market realities in the country's biggest cities, leaving tens of thousands of workers without a social safety net.
"The federal program to support unemployed Canadians is no longer aligned or consistent with the labour market realities in a city like Toronto, so what that means is that workers in cities like Toronto have no protection from sudden job loss or income loss," Mendelsohn said in an interview Wednesday.
"The way EI is designed doesn't address the new world of work and the fact that fewer and fewer people have traditional employer-employee relationships, and that new world is much more prominent in big metropolitan cities like Toronto."
People living in big cities often hold down multiple part-time jobs, Mendelsohn noted. Some are in contract positions, and contracts run out. Some work for temp agencies. Many are self-employed, and work dries up.
A lot of those workers don't pay EI premiums, meaning they're unable to access employment insurance when they find themselves out of work.
Mendelsohn suggests "redesigning the system in such a way that more people in non-traditional employer-employee arrangements would have to contribute to the system."
But he says that wouldn't do much to help people with several part-time jobs, or contract jobs that end, resulting in unemployment for months until another contract can be lined up.
"They don't accumulate enough hours consistently, so they can't collect EI," he said.
"But these folks are actually paying EI premiums, they're contributing to the system, yet they have no protection, and that to me is among the most egregious elements considering people in other parts of the country who work seasonally — six months at a summer resort in P.E.I., for example, and then six months unemployed — can collect benefits."
Big cities also attract more young workers and new immigrants than rural regions, and those workers can't collect EI until they've notched 960 hours of work. That's also contributing to Toronto's low recipient rate, he added.
Andrew Cash, a Toronto NDP MP, says Toronto and other big cities are ill-served by the current system.
"In big cities, there's a lot of cyclical work — film work, a TV show maybe. People are making contributions to EI but they don't have enough hours to collect," he said.
"You have to amass a certain amount of hours in a certain period of time, and that's a very difficult thing to do if you're working part-time or working on a contract. The system needs to start protecting those people."
The government, however, calls the 17 per cent Toronto recipient rate "misleading."
"In fact, in 2012/13, which is the most recent data available, among those who had paid EI premiums and either lost their job or quit with just cause, nearly four out of five were eligible to receive EI regular benefits in Ontario," a spokesman for Employment and Social Development Canada said in an email.
"Over 38 per cent of the unemployed are ineligible because they did not contribute to the program, and another 13 per cent did not qualify due to invalid job loss (i.e. voluntary quits)."
But Angella MacEwan, a senior economist for the Canadian Labour Congress, says the current system unduly penalizes those living in Canada's biggest cities by depriving urban workers of not just EI premiums, but training to enable them to land steady, full-time, lasting work.
"If you don't have access to EI, then you don't have access to the training programs that come with EI," she said.
"So we see the solution is to lower the bar for entry into the system and have one standard across Canada. Precarious work is huge in urban areas, and the way EI is set up right now, it doesn't recognize that."