Workers speak about their concerns | PIERRE CHENIER*
The $82 billion aid package for Canadians announced by the Trudeau government on March 18, to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic, includes $27 billion for direct supports to Canadians. Some of the measures concern Employment Insurance (EI) and it is already clear that they are inadequate.
Access to EI is a problem that successive governments have refused to address. Only about 40 per cent of unemployed workers are eligible for EI. During this crisis, what is needed is a social program that provides a guaranteed income to all those who find themselves without a job. In March alone, the projected unemployment rate is expected to leap to over seven per cent, with an additional 300,000 workers becoming unemployed. These are workers who could all be mobilized to work safely in public enterprises serving the people and economy at Canadian standard wages and benefits. Instead, the government has created two programs – the Emergency Care Benefit and the Emergency Support Benefit – making it clear that these are temporary and of an exceptional character.
There are three EI measures in the aid package:
1. The government is waiving the one-week waiting period for those workers in imposed quarantine who are eligable to claim EI sickness benefits. This is a temporary measure that takes effect as of March 15.
2. The government is waiving the requirement that a medical certificate be provided to access EI sickness benefits.
3. The government is implementing the EI Work Sharing Program, which provides EI benefits to workers who agree to reduce their normal working hours as a result of developments beyond the control of their employers, extending the eligibility of such agreements from 38 to 76 weeks, easing eligibility requirements, and streamlining the application process.
For example, the government is waiving the waiting period before a second request for shared work can be made. This was announced by the Prime Minister on March 11, and repeated on March 18.
Those who need to access these measures say there are immediate issues that require answers. Activists who work with defence organizations of unemployed workers are trying to sort out various things. For example, there is no announced extension of the period of time during which workers will receive benefits.
In 2018, as a measure to address the problem of the “black hole” faced by seasonal workers – the period of time during which these workers are without income after having exhausted EI benefits and not yet being back at work – the Trudeau government offered supplemental income to those workers who would get training during that period. This was not a sound measure because training does not solve the problem of the “black hole” facing workers who live in areas in which seasonal work is the main or only work. And what will happen to these workers now that the training institutions have closed because of the pandemic?
Workers in the oil industry in the west are also facing a serious problem. Unemployment in their ranks is increasing because of the crisis in that industry, a crisis compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic. The duration of their benefits and the benefits of all workers should cover their actual needs within this crisis situation.
Can we expect that these workers will be protected under the new Emergency Support Benefit which is said to be a program for those who are not eligible for EI? No details have been provided.
While they are struggling to find out exactly what benefits the new Emergency Care Benefit and the Emergency Support Benefit will provide and how to access them, the defence organizations of unemployed workers maintain that immediate reforms are needed in the EI regime to make sure that all unemployed workers are protected.
For example, they are demanding that the Canadian government address the issue of the long delays (sometimes many months) before a benefit claimant gets a decision on their claim. This is far from a simple matter of waiving the waiting period so that workers get the benefits to which they are entitled. Service Canada people are already overwhelmed and have been for some time. This is a problem which must be addressed on a permanent basis. How will the new claims be processed in a timely fashion by a system already seriously backlogged?
Defence organizations are also demanding that the threshold of accessibility be drastically reduced so that more workers are eligible for EI benefits. At present, a worker needs to have 600 insurable hours of work to qualify for sickness benefits. For regular benefits, the number of insurable hours required to qualify runs between 420 and 700 hours, depending on the official regional unemployment rate decreed by the government. This requirement is problematic because it is an arbitrary figure arrived at in part by merging regions that may have very little in common in terms of their industries and economic development. Of equal concern is the fact that less than one per cent of workers who are called self-employed are eligible for EI because they are considered to be outside of an employer-employee relationship. So what becomes of all of these existing problems and how are individual workers supposed to navigate all of this?
One of the defence organizations in Quebec, the Autonomous Movement in Solidarity with the Unemployed (MASSE), is demanding that the threshold of eligibility across the country be 350 hours of work, that benefits last a minimum of 35 weeks (currently they range from 14 to 45 weeks) and that they be based on a minimum of 70 per cent of the average weekly earnings (currently 55 per cent). Other defence organizations have different specific targets while also demanding that the threshold of accessibility be drastically reduced. The National Council of the Unemployed, also based in Quebec, and the Action Committee on Employment Insurance for Seasonal Workers in New Brunswick are demanding an immediate threshold of eligibility of 420 hours of work for 35 weeks of benefits for areas with seasonal economies. The threshold is currently often higher than 650 hours in these areas depending on the official unemployment rate declared by the federal government.
The emergency measures taken by the government will not miraculously get rid of all these problems unemployed workers face as a result of the fend-for-oneself system governments have enforced during the cutbacks, which are an integral part of neo-liberal “austerity” measures. This means that during the crisis, the demands of the defence organizations of the unemployed and organized workers must be taken seriously. Appropriate measures must be taken which actually deliver for the working people. The direction has to be to sustain and guarantee the livelihood of all as a matter of right, implementing modern social programs through which people can affirm their humanity. While the measures sound good on paper, those who face the crisis of unemployment know that they are forced to fend for themselves and, in the end, are not provided with a living stipend. They are not, like the deputy prime minister kept repeating, small problems of implementation that Canadians should put up with in the name of the greater good.
Not One Person Must Be Left to Fend for Themselves!
Every Unemployed Worker Must Receive a Suitable Stipend!
*Pierre Chénier is Secretary of the Workers’ Centre of the Communist party of Canada (Marxist-Leninist).
(Photos: J. Poirier, CUPE)