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If you remember the economic crisis of 2008 and the large scale layoffs that followed, you know what it takes to move Employment Insurance (EI) to the front burner. It was the same story with the recessions of the early 1980s, 1990s and 2000s. The public really started to pay attention when a whole lot of people thought their paycheque may be in jeopardy. It's understandable.
The uproar in 2008 forced the Harper government to opt for EI stimulus spending in 2009-2011, beefing up EI benefits and swallowing their aversion to such interventions. It was miserly compared to Obama's UI stimulus in the U.S., but Harper was clearly shaken by an angry public and an economy that desperately needed the unemployed to have money to spend. But it was just a fling. By 2012 the Conservatives were back to their orthodox ways with new restrictions on EI access.
Although Canada still suffers the dull ache of six per cent plus unemployment and extensive underemployment and precarious work, EI has not been a headliner for many months.
So it came as a surprise to many to see the NDP and Liberals issue special releases detailing their EI platform in the run-up to the October 19 election. The Conservatives followed suit, trying to get in on the action with a not particularly helpful tweak to EI parental benefits.
Importantly, the NDP and Liberals have both promised to repeal the Conservatives' 2012 EI changes. Less clear is how each of these parties would handle the problem-ridden Social Security Tribunal established as part of those changes.
The NDP has adopted a 360-hour qualifying rule for basic benefit entitlements, a long-held demand of community and labour organizations. The Liberals have some way to go but have at least called for an end to the punitive 910-hour requirement for new labour market entrants/re-entrants.
The Liberals have also proposed cutting EI premiums, not as deeply as the Conservatives, but still worrying as this will undercut measures to improve EI access, something the Liberals propose to review with the provinces/territories. The NDP position is more honest with its proposed premium freeze, knowing serious EI improvements will take serious bucks.
The announcements were a breath of fresh air for those struggling with the failings of the current EI system -- the outmoded EI hours system that can't cope with the tsunami of temporary, part-time and contract employment; the onerous new Social Security Tribunal foisted on claim appellants; the dismissive attitude to migrant worker rights; the needs of new parents laid off before or after a parental leave… the list goes on.
Those of us who've met with NDP, Liberal, Bloc and Green MPs over the years know there are quite a few who support EI improvements because they're committed to social justice and to good economics. But less visionary candidates at least understand the importance of EI to securing votes in the Atlantic region and in Quebec. Not so long ago there were large street demonstrations in Quebec, as well as New Brunswick, PEI and elsewhere.
Although there are more unemployed paying attention in Alberta these days, EI reform is not a familiar issue in some parts of Canada... even in Toronto where EI recipient rates hover at just 20 per cent of the unemployed.
Therein lies our collective problem. When so many young people, newcomers and workers in precarious employment can't access EI, or don't know about their rights to income maintenance during times of unemployment, we're headed for a mess of trouble. EI has been identified in government studies as the 'single-most powerful automatic economic stabilizer'. Not surprising given it's a $17 billion plus program. The sad state of our EI system will come back to haunt our larger economy as well as individual workers and their families with the next recession.
This year marks the 80th anniversary of the On to Ottawa Trek. Thousands took to the streets with demands that included unemployment insurance so that the unemployed would not be forced to labour in work camps or take municipal welfare.
This year also marks the 75th anniversary of the Unemployment Insurance Act. It first became law on August 7, 1940. It has come a long way since but with the notable exception of substantial new EI parental benefits, the last quarter century has been a pretty miserable one for the EI system, including Mulroney's decision to end government contributions to the EI Account and the many years when Liberal and Conservative governments have siphoned off EI funds for other purposes.
We need an EI system that's responsive to new labour market realities. It would be lovely if politicians and others are really starting to pay heed. What's that old expression? A stitch in time saves nine?
And if we end up with a minority government, EI improvements should be one of the issues that form common ground for a new government.
Laurell Ritchie is currently the co-chair of the EI Working Group, part of the Good Jobs for All Coalition. She was also an EI specialist with the Canadian Auto Workers for many years.
Photo: flick/ Gavin Schaefer