EI fairness long overdue (Guest commentary)

Women particularly vulnerable under current scheme
By Winnie Ng
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 06/15/2009

What’s a mother to do? Currently, the rules for employment insurance prevent mothers who have used the full amount of “special” maternity and parental benefits from accessing “regular” benefits if they lose their jobs. In too many cases, that is happening in this economic downturn.

At the end of April, NDP MP Chris Charlton introduced a private member’s bill that would remove the combined 50-week cap entirely. Family income-earners would then be able to rely on maternity, parental, illness and compassionate care leave benefits without worrying that, if they lose their jobs, they will lose their EI.

The Good Jobs for All Coalition — an alliance of 38 community, labour, environmentalist and student groups representing people across the Greater Toronto Area — is urging all members of Parliament to unite to increase the maximum number of weeks in a benefit period when regular and special benefits are combined, by passing Bill C-378. Though the whole EI program needs to be fixed, adoption of this bill would end a rule that is particularly discriminatory towards women and causes children to suffer when parents don’t quality for EI.

Canadian women have been unfairly shortchanged by an EI system that was made more restrictive in 1996. Women are concentrated in low wage work, making up 60 per cent of minimum wage earners and 70 per cent of part-time workers. The EI eligibility rules have already excluded many women from receiving EI benefits. In 2004, only 32 per cent of unemployed women, compared to 40 per cent of unemployed men, received EI benefits.

However, in February, federal Human Resources Minister Diane Finley called EI “lucrative” as she explained the Harper government’s resolve not to fix the program. In April, Finley said: “It is true that not everyone is eligible. Unfortunately, that is the way the system is, and everyone has agreed this is not the time to overhaul it.”

The minister’s comments completely ignore a motion that was also brought by Charlton and passed by a majority of MPs on March 10 that directs the government to implement three of the Good Jobs for All Coalition’s recommendations: lowering the qualifying threshold to 360 hours worked for everyone across the country; restoring benefits to at least 60 per cent of normal earnings using each worker’s best 12 weeks; and eliminating the two-week waiting period.

There are three important reasons Canada urgently needs EI to be fixed, all of which were explained in the objectives of the Unemployment Insurance Act as first passed by Parliament in 1940: to provide financial assistance to the unemployed; to help Canadians find suitable employment; and to provide aid to the disadvantaged.

Income maintenance is a central element of any effective economic recovery strategy. Consumer confidence must be maintained to keep spending from freezing and to stop low revenues from diving deeper. It is also a faster and more direct way to deliver stimulus money than infrastructure spending.

According to the receiver general, the Employment Insurance Act provides for a “compulsory contributory employment insurance program applicable to all employees and employers, with few exceptions.” EI is a major part of our general commitment to a social safety net. Paid for by nearly all of us who work, EI is a fundamental way we contribute to a “just society” and prevent both deepening poverty and swelling social assistance rolls during a recession.

It’s no wonder laid-off and working Canadians alike are incensed at learning the EI fund surplus was $57 billion as of March 31, 2008 (the most recent figure available). The accumulated EI surplus under the Conservative government has increased by $6.2 billion and nearly all of it has been siphoned off to pad general revenues, first generating massive surpluses that were used to make extra national debt payments and later to finance the GST cuts.

In its December 2007 report on EI financing, the Canadian Institute of Actuaries stressed “EI premiums and surpluses belong and must eventually revert to insured persons and their employers.”

There is no better time than now to fix EI. Canada needs the EI surplus to be paid back immediately to avoid any further spending declines, help unemployed parents meet their families’ expenses and keep talented workers doing the jobs they are trained to do.

Winnie Ng is co-chair of the Toronto-based Good Jobs for All Coalition and a former Ontario regional director of the Canadian Labour Congress. She can be reached at communications@goodjobscoalition.ca.

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