Trend to part-time work making it harder to qualify for EI

OTTAWA – A trend towards more short-lived and part-time jobs has made it harder than ever for many Canadians to qualify for employment insurance benefits, even if they’ve contributed to the federal program, according to data released Monday.

Statistics Canada says only 78.4 per cent of Canadians who lost their jobs last year were eligible for benefits — the lowest rate since the agency started collecting comparable information in 2003.

It’s also down from 83.9 per cent who were eligible to collect benefits in 2010.

Put another way, less full-time permanent work means fewer employees who work enough hours to qualify for EI benefits.

“The share of these contributors who last worked in a permanent, full-time job — where one can generally have enough hours to qualify for EI — declined from 51 per cent to 45 per cent in 2011,” the agency said.

“At the same time, there was an increased share of those who last worked in temporary, non-seasonal work, where one generally accumulates fewer hours.”

To be eligible for EI benefits, contributors require from 420 to 700 hours worked, depending on the unemployment rate in their region. First-time employees, or those with limited work experience in the past two years, need 910 hours.

Economist Erin Weir, president of the Progressive Economics Forum, said the report shows the rules are not working for many Canadians who lose their jobs through no fault of their own.

“The case is quite compelling for the government to focus on making employment insurance benefits more accessible,” he said.

Bank of Montreal economist Doug Porter says the numbers could also be interpreted to show that fewer permanent full-time workers are losing their jobs — but he agrees that the more vulnerable workers are being left out in the cold.

“Often times, it is the last in, first out,” Porter said. “It shows that the people who are often let go first are the people least firmly attached to their jobs.”

Monday’s report found there was on average of 1.34 million people unemployed in 2011. Of those only 867,000 were contributors to EI and only 695,000 lost their jobs involuntarily and hence were eligible for benefits. And of those, 545,000, or 78.4 per cent, received benefits.

As a percentage of all unemployed, only 40.6 per cent were eligible for EI in 2011.

On average, the eligibility rate was highest for older workers, although the core 25-54 working age group also saw the eligibility rate fall from 89.9 per cent to 81.7.

But among youth, those more likely to be impacted by the higher first-time worker requirement, only 42.1 per cent were eligible in 2011.

Women were also highly impacted, with the eligibility rate dropping to 77 per cent from 84.4.

Weir said new more restrictive changes to EI rules introduced in this year’s budget will make it even more difficult for the unemployed to receive benefits in the future. The changes expand criteria under which the unemployed must accept work at the risk of losing their benefits.

The new data cuts against the grain of the government’s boasts about the strength of Canada’s labour market and the country’s social safety net.

Porter said Canada’s unemployment rate, stable at 7.4 per cent last month, doesn’t tell the whole story.

Although Canada has recovered all the jobs lost during the slump, and actually added about 380,000 on top of that, the other side of the coin is that the unemployment rate remains elevated and the number of employed rose to 1.4 million in October. That’s about 300,000 more jobless than in 2008.

“I think the big story in (Friday’s) employment report is we have the same unemployment rate we did a year ago, so we’ve basically stalled out. We’re still getting some job gains, but it’s only enough to keep up with the population (growth) and no better.”