The 2016 federal budget represents an overdue shift in Canada’s treatment of the unemployed. Removing unfair eligibility requirements and extending benefit duration in some regions suggests a limited acknowledgement that joblessness is based on labour market conditions and not individual commitment or skill levels. This is a welcome departure from the Harper government’s economically wrong-headed ‘blame the victim’ approach.

Unfortunately, many of the punitive Harper changes remain in effect including distinct categories of beneficiaries, an earnings program for claimants that favours higher earning and more securely employed workers, and politically motivated decisions about how regions are designated eligible for extended benefits.

As a result, these changes are only a partial fulfillment of the Liberal election commitment to ensuring an Employment Insurance “system that [provides] real income security to workers, including those with precarious work” and is a long way from what was promised.

Since its inception Employment Insurance, or EI, has largely been based on a model of full time, regular hours of work that no longer reflect the reality of many Canadian workers, including CUPE members.

While CUPE has always protested restricted access to EI for members who live in regions with high levels of seasonal employment (for example Atlantic Canada), or who for work for school boards and municipalities, the CUPE 2015 Membership Survey reveals that precarity extends across the public sector.

Members reported that:

  • 14 per cent are in permanent part-time work of less than 30 hours per week

  • 4 per cent are in permanent full-time positions with varying hours, which can be fewer than 30 hours per week

  • 7 per cent perform casual, on-call or day labour work

  • 5 per cent are on a short-term contract of less than a year

  • 2 per cent are on fixed term contracts of one year or more

  • 2 per cent perform seasonal work

There are also important equity dimensions to this reported precarity as members who work fewer hours, on contract or in casual, on-call or day labour positions are more likely to be women, youth, lower earning, have a physical or mental condition which limits their work, or be employed in female-dominated occupations such as airlines, health & social services, long term care, post secondary or public library boards.

For these reasons and in support of all unemployed Canadians, CUPE is pleased to see changes that seem to reflect a limited understanding of that labour market conditions rather than personal characteristics determine workers’ chances at a job. Positive changes include:

  • Reducing the waiting period to one week. This is a positive shift away from the two-week waiting period intended to discourage “frivolous” claims. While Canada’s national unemployment remains stubbornly fixed at 7.2 per cent (approximately 1.4 million Canadians) and claimants experience greater difficulty establishing and appealing claims, there is no justification for a waiting period – of any duration.

  • Reducing the 920-hour eligibility requirements for new entrants and re-entrants, signifying shorter waiting periods ranging from 420 to 700 hours. This change also signifies a shift away from the Harper government’s obsession with claimant abuse but falls short of the 360-hour qualifying period that CUPE and our allies called for as a meaningful response to the problem of precarious and seasonal work.

  • By maintaining these categories the current government seems unable to grasp the systemic barriers faced by young and seasonally employed workers, much the same way as their predecessors.

  • Extending the duration of claims in the regions with high unemployment to 50 weeks, with an additional 20 weeks for “long-tenured” workers. CUPE supports extending benefits, but is opposed to policies that suggest some workers are more deserving of coverage than others. Higher levels of unemployment among seasonal workers and youth are undisputed.There should be no distinction in the duration of benefits now or in future.

  • Extending the pilot program to work while on claim, and expanding the current work-share program, are also approaches to unemployment that are not individually based. However the work-share program has been historically under-utilized, and should be better promoted by government.

    While these improvements place greater emphasis on systemic labour market problems and ease the burden of individual responsibility on EI claimants, there are areas that have not been adequately addressed.

  • Workers in seasonal labour markets will continue to be disadvantaged. Most notably, PEI, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia – all formerly eligible for extended benefits - have been completely excluded from additional weeks despite persistently high rates of unemployment and hardship.

    Similarly, the Working While on Claim Pilot Project most benefits a comparatively small group of workers with close to full time earnings and does little to address the challenges of seasonal workers who are able to find only a few hours of work per week in their off-seasons.

    Lastly, increasing access by employers to the Temporary Foreign Worker Program represents the on-going failure of the federal government to respond meaningfully to the needs of seasonally employed Canadians and regional economic disparity.

  • The Liberals pre-election promise to introduce more flexible and extended forms of parental and compassionate leave has not been implemented. Personal care-giving for children and the aged is still overwhelmingly the responsibility of women, who make up the majority of CUPE members. Measures should quickly be taken to support parents and caregivers with these responsibilities.

  • Applying for benefits and appealing disentitlements and disqualifications remains an arduous process for many claimants. Though the government has committed to increasing front line services and reducing wait times for processing claims, the decades long erosion of personal service and front line counselling remain unacknowledged, leaving the unemployed on their own to navigate a system that is based on a “self service” model of call centres and on-line applications.

    This represents a particular challenge for workers who speak neither official language, those lacking access to or who have difficulty with on-line services, and youth who have grown up with little knowledge of the EI program.

    The Social Security Tribunal introduced by the Harper government is a deeply flawed appeal system that has replaced the fairer, more locally based three juror panels that included labour-nominated representatives. Combined, the erosion of services and a difficult appeal system create unnecessary barriers for claimants and should be removed.

  • Increased funding to the provinces through Labour Market Development Agreements is problematic for two reasons.

    First, CUPE and our allies maintain the long-standing position that EI funds should be directly solely toward benefits and not other purposes. Training should be paid for from general revenue.

    Second, the continued emphasis on training reinforces the long-standing assumption that EI claimants and other job seekers can find work through personal improvement.

    Though CUPE supports meaningful training, especially for those who require basic literacy in preparation of more advanced education, it cannot be said enough that there are too few jobs for those who want them. Moreover, Canadians (especially youth) are more highly educated than ever before. Despite this, the decades old myth of “skills deficits” and the “knowledge economy” continues to underlie much of the government’s labour market policy.

    Commitments to support unions that provide apprenticeship programs are promising, but too much of the “training” on offer to the unemployed remains focused on soft skills rather than direct preparation for good paying, stable jobs.

  • Over the past four decades, successive Liberal and Conservative governments have eroded access to EI based on unproven claims of abuse and lack of personal responsibility. The EI fund was never intended to pay for labour market training programs that are the responsibility of the provinces, nor should the EI surplus continue to be used as political tool to construct balanced budgets.

  • To serve workers, EI policy must recognize permanent structural unemployment, regions with seasonal economics, and growing labour precarity market across the country. EI is a program that is fully funded by employers and workers, both of whom should perform a greater role in developing sound public policy and monitoring outcomes.

  • The 9.2 billion dollar deficit in the EI fund is now fully repaid, and the end of 2016 once again projects a substantial surplus. Based on this it is reasonable to expect higher benefit levels, greater support to regions with high levels of seasonal unemployment, and meaningful job training, particularly for those most vulnerable to exclusion in the labour market.