The well-being of Canadians, especially during difficult economic times, is dependent on a robust social safety net. What is now called Employment Insurance (EI) is a key part of this because it kicks in when workers and communities need it most. Employment Insurance helps workers make ends meet and softens the blow for communities hard hit by layoffs—or at least it should!

Canada’s EI program turns 75 years old October 2015. As can be seen by the following timeline, what was once a central pillar holding up our social safety net has been eroded by successive cuts.

Major Changes to EI Program

October 1940: Unemployment Insurance (UI) established in Canada by federal government of Mackenzie King with unanimous provincial approval. Workers must have contributed to program 180 days over previous two years, benefits last 6-52 weeks, but only around 40 per cent of the workforce is covered.

1955: Benefits extended to cover close to 75 per cent of the workforce, but limited to 36 weeks.

1971: New UI Act under Trudeau extends benefits to cover approximately 95 per cent of wage/salary earners, with maximum benefits extended to 50 weeks. Benefits for illness and maternity added.

1977: Regional variable entrance requirements added: those in low unemployment regions must work longer to qualify.

1990: Federal government stops contributing to program, making it financed entirely by worker and employer contributions.

1990-96: Benefit amounts and duration reduced under Mulroney and Chretien governments.

1996: Program renamed Employment Insurance under Chretien; entrance requirements increased substantially, more than doubled in some instances. Coverage drops to around 50 per cent of workforce. Over $50 billion in surpluses from UI and EI fund used for general government revenue during 1990s and 2000s.

2012: Harper government significantly restricts access, compelling claimants to accept jobs previously considered unsuitable; also slashes staff and access to appeals process. Coverage drops to less than 40 per cent.

2015: Harper government takes $2.7 billion dollars out of EI Fund so it could “balance” the federal budget and help finance high income tax cuts.

Because of recent successive cuts, coverage provided by the EI program is now at the lowest share in its 75 year history, just 39 per cent of the workforce. Unfortunately, Canada’s EI program is no longer working for the majority of unemployed Canadians. The good news is it could easily be fixed with a few key changes. All it will take to revitalize the EI program on its 75th anniversary is for Canadians to elect a new progressive government this October.