For the past 26 years, Tracey Newman has paid into the Employment Insurance (EI) system.

As an educational assistant (EA) working with special needs students in the Ontario public school system, she’s experienced violent attacks, worked through staffing shortages and plugged away in an emotionally and physically demanding job.

But the Harper government changes to EI remain her biggest concern, forcing her to make a choice between continuing the work she loves or switching careers.

Like many other public sector workers, Newman gets laid off from her job for several weeks a year. Two weeks in December. One week in March. And ten weeks during the summer.

“Earning close to sixty per cent less than a teacher does, I cannot consider these times that I do not work as vacation or as a break,” said Newman.

“Because that would mean that I could afford time away from work.”

Finding other work during those layoff periods is next to impossible, she said. No employer wants to train a worker to have them leave shortly thereafter.

“During those times I rely on our EI system to feed my children and to keep my family from going into debt,” said Newman.

“The Harper government has made changes to our EI system that put workers like me at risk.”

Changes made without a mandate or public consultation.

“New EI rules will create three classes of unemployed,” said the Good Jobs for All Coalition in a written statement.

“They’ll be held to increasingly tough job search rules based on their layoff history. New rules require you to apply for jobs outside your normal occupation, paying ten to thirty per cent less than the job you were laid off from.”

Leaving them with less money to spend, struggling to make ends meet or incurring more debt.

“These adverse changes will mean that unemployed workers will not be able to spend money at stores in their communities,” said Newman.

Putting a greater strain on already overburdened food banks, meal programs, drop-ins and other social services.

“You and I are the ones who put in the premiums for the EI along with our employers,” said Winnie Ng, CAW-Sam Gindin Chair in Social Justice and Democracy at Ryerson University.

“It’s our money and EI like any insurance policy should be there when we need it most. But EI has become so unattainable.”

Even when workers are employed full time, many are vulnerable to temporary layoffs, yet no longer qualify for benefits.

On Friday, community and labour groups organized rallies in Montreal, Fredericton and Toronto, urging the federal government to scrap the changes made to EI in its 2012 and 2013 budgets.

In Toronto, workers rallied outside the Service Canada office at 25 St. Clair Avenue East.

“Part of a large movement that has developed across this country,” said Carolyn Egan, Steelworkers Toronto Area Council.

A movement not only dedicated to improving EI benefits for permanent residents, but providing Temporary Foreign Workers with “meaningful EI entitlements” too.

“In the Live-in Caregiver Program, we are working long hours without overtime pay,” said Catherine Manuel, member, Live-in Caregiver Coalition.

“The changes in EI is hurting us.”

The latest figures from Statistics Canada show that only 37.6 per cent of unemployed Canadians qualified for employment insurance in August.

The number of insured hours required to qualify for regular benefits ranges from 420 to 700 hours, depending on the region’s unemployment rate.

The Good Jobs for All Coalition wants the government to reduce qualifying hours in all regions to the lesser of 360 hours or 13 weeks and increase duration to at least 50 weeks everywhere in Canada.

It also said benefits should be increased to at least 60 per cent of earnings using workers’ 12 best weeks.

“The federal government is cutting back EI too quickly given that unemployment is barely decreasing,” said Erin Weir, an economist with the United Steelworkers union and a CCPA research associate, on the CCPA website on July 18.

“As Armine Yalnizyan points out, EI coverage is now at its lowest level since World War II.”

And that’s having a negative impact on efforts to reduce poverty across Canada.

“Parents who can’t access EI are often forced on to social assistance,” said Anita Khanna, coordinator, Campaign 2000.

“Parents and children end up in deep poverty as a result, living 40 per cent below the median family income.”


John Bonnar

John Bonnar is an independent journalist producing print, photo, video and audio stories about social justice issues in and around Toronto.