Canada’s Employment Insurance program is flawed in many ways. A regional bias means workers in some parts of the country get quicker access and receive benefits longer, which strikes many as unfair. Past surpluses of the EI Fund were never put aside for times of high unemployment, but were spent long ago by Ottawa. And while it’s designed to insure against unexpected job loss, it bizarrely includes maternity and parental benefits. Still, recent criticisms of EI seem misplaced.
Politicians and social activists have complained that only half of all Canadian workers are eligible to receive EI benefits. In an angry exchange between NDP Leader Jack Layton and Prime Minister Stephen Harper in the House of Commons recently, Layton cited 1.3 million unemployed in Canada but only 560,000 recipients of EI. While the statistics are factually correct, it’s not proof EI is failing workers.
Many workers do not pay into the EI system, or are ineligible to earn benefits for legitimate reasons. This includes the self-employed, and workers who were fired for cause or quit on their own. You also need a minimum number of work hours to qualify for benefits, which prevents new workers from getting benefits without having first paid into EI.
Further, EI is designed to help workers in their first year of unemployment. If you’ve been off work longer, you become the responsibility of provincial social assistance programs. This group makes up one-quarter of the total unemployed. Despite Layton’s complaints, EI was never designed to cover every Canadian without a job—forever—regardless of whether they’re on welfare or not.
The functional coverage rate is actually 82 per cent. So while EI isn’t perfect, it will still cover the vast majority of Canadians who paid premiums and now find themselves laid off as a result of the Great Recession.