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article imageOp-Ed: Understanding those marginalized by Canada's EI system Special

By Andrew Reeves     Nov 22, 2011 in Politics
Toronto - I recently spoke with former York University researcher Lee Berkowitz on the ways in which Canada's current system of distributing employment insurance marginalizes and excludes more than we may realize. The following is my Q & A with Lee.
What groups are most systemically omitted from the current EI program? Why?
First of all, you must be residing in Canada to receive benefits. Therefore, many temporary migrant workers (live-in caregivers, seasonal agricultural workers, etc.) may not be eligible if they leave Canada when their work is complete. This is the case even though when they are working in Canada they pay into EI as required by law.
You must be "available for work" if you want to receive employment insurance. This means that if someone has a work permit tied to a specific employer (i.e. they are a temporary immigrant, even highly-skilled temporary immigrants with a contract with a single employer), they cannot work for another employer if they are laid off and thus are not "available for work" and not eligible for EI.
Another problem area are policies around new entrant or re-entrant into the workforce. If you have fewer than 490 hours in the last 52 weeks then you are considered a new or re-entrant into the workforce and it is more difficult to receive EI. In particular, if you are a new entrant/re-entrant you can only claim EI after 910 hours of insured employment.
There has been a pilot project to decrease that number to 840 hours, but it's still difficult. If you have worked for your entire life, and are then laid off and do not work for over one year, you are then considered a NE/RE, even if you've paid into the system for years. This often affects older workers who require more time to find work in between jobs.
The regular entry requirement to receive employment insurance is 420-700 hours depending on the unemployment rate in that region. 910 hours is significantly higher than the regular rate, so new entrants or re-entrants face a much higher barrier to entry.
Who else is subject these types of obstacles to collecting EI benefits?
Women tend to be more excluded by NE/RE provisions than men because if someone takes time off to care for family members such as newborns or older parents then they will be classified as a re-entrant and will require more hours to be eligible for EI. This tends to affect more women than men because of the gendered division of labour in our society.
Self-employed workers are a special case since most self-employed workers are not eligible to receive EI because they don't pay into it. Yet many self-employed workers would like to pay into the system so they can be eligible to receive it later.
What about people who quit their job?
If you quit your job without "just cause," then you are not eligible for EI.
However, "just cause" is interpreted quite narrowly: for example, it doesn't include people quitting work for home or family reasons, such as if someone needs to take care of aging parents or a sick child. "Just cause" is traditionally defined as leaving work to "improve one's position in the marketplace," which is a very narrow way of looking at it. This leads to many people being excluded from receiving EI
How does the current EI system handle the changing dynamics of a modern labour force? Since the current system is based on 1970s labour market trends, is it able to deal effectively with how Canadians work in the 21st Century?
EI laws and regulations tend to be based on a normative assumption: namely, that the average person works a permanent job with 40 hours per week. If you fit into this normative framework, then you are more likely to be eligible for EI.
However, many people do not fit into it as many people work part-time or shift work, have unreliable weekly hours, or don't have secure employment. Additionally, many workers have to take care of other family members, are forced to work under the table, or accept temporary contracts. There are many variations on why people cannot fit into this mold.
The 40 hours/week, permanent job norm is also gendered and racialized: it tends to award benefits more easily to those in traditional job types who tend to be white and male, while penalizing women who take on more care giving duties. There is also a huge class component to EI benefits: typically, middle and upper class workers fit the norm more than lower and lower-middle class. We should also remember that class, too, is racialized.
How do regional imbalances affect the system of distribution?
EI varies across the country depending on region. In areas of very high employment, people can be on EI for up to 45 weeks, whereas in areas of low unemployment, people can receive EI for 14 weeks. This seems fair on the surface, but when the government only takes into account one factor such as geography, there are usually people being excluded or unfairly treated.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
More about Employment insurance, Government of canada, welfare state, Social assistance
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