Chandra Pasma | CUPE Staff

For two decades, labour organizations like CUPE and the Canadian Labour Congress have been raising concerns about gender discrimination in Employment Insurance (EI).

The reforms introduced by Jean Chrétien’s Liberal government in the mid-1990s made it more difficult for women to qualify for EI benefits by discriminating against part-time and precarious work. As a result, EI – which already doesn’t function particularly well as a social safety net – provides very little coverage to unemployed women.

It is well known that less than half of unemployed Canadians are able to qualify for EI. But the statistics are even more striking for women. In February 2020, right before the pandemic began, fewer than one third of unemployed women were receiving regular EI benefits, in contrast to 45 per cent of unemployed men.

But just as the pandemic demonstrated that the federal government actually has tools at its disposal to make income supports more responsive and robust when they choose to, it also revealed that the government can make policy choices that eliminate the gender gap in income supports.

The Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) was designed to be rapid, nearly universal, and sufficient for unemployed workers to actually pay the bills. More women experienced a decline in working hours during the pandemic, and so, as we would expect, more women than men received the CERB. What’s more, the benefit level was $500 for all workers, which means that women received exactly the same amount as men, despite the fact that they earn lower wages on average.

When the CERB ended, the federal government was also able to change the rules of EI in a way that ensured more women had access. They dropped the number of hours required to qualify to 120 hours, regardless of region or local unemployment rates, and they simplified rules around previous job separations in a way that benefited precarious workers. As a result, in October 2020, 76 per cent of unemployed women were receiving EI benefits, compared to 70 per cent of unemployed men.

However, the government’s rush to return to normal is reinstating the EI gender gap. In October 2021, with the threshold for benefits raised to 420 hours of employment, only 52 per cent of unemployed women were receiving benefits, compared to 54 per cent of unemployed men.

Gender discrimination in public policy doesn’t just happen. It is the result of choices. Sometimes these choices are made deliberately, but sometimes they are made because decision makers are not considering outcomes through a gender lens.

The federal government has made a commitment to Gender Based Analysis Plus (GBA+) in their budgets. Now, as they are reviewing EI with a goal to make long-term reforms to the program, they have an opportunity to use GBA+ to eliminate gender discrimination in EI. The process should start with implementing a universal threshold for all benefits of no more than 360 hours and setting a minimum floor for benefits of $500 per week.