The whole point of Canada’s system of Employment Insurance (EI) is to support workers through periods of temporary lay-off or inability to work, including sickness, maternity, parental, and compassionate leave. It’s an insurance system that pays for itself through contributions from both employers and employees.
EI is especially critical for women since we are more likely to be supporting a family on our own. An interruption in work can be devastating.
How can we ensure the EI system more effectively takes women’s realities into account?
- Change the rules to improve benefits and reflect the reality of the working conditions of women.
- Invest part of the EI surplus on better training and labour adjustment programs, including programs for women.
- Expand support and funding for work-sharing arrangements under EI to reduce layoffs and build links between work-sharing and training programs.
- Help workers balance work and family responsibilities.
Unfortunately, our EI system completely ignores the different working patterns of women. Even though we pay into the EI fund, many women are excluded from it or unfairly penalized.
Good examples of this:
- EI assumes an average work week of 35 hours when the reality for women is more like 30.
- 40% of women hold precarious or part-time “non-standard” jobs, or are self-employed.
- Just 1 in 3 of unemployed women qualify for EI benefits.
- Not qualifying for EI means no access to paid maternity, parental, compassionate or sick leave.
Even when women do qualify for EI, lower wages and unstable work patterns result in lower benefits. Only one third of the total amount of regular EI benefits goes to women, even though women now make up half the workforce.
Recent changes by the Harper government have made it even harder for unemployed women, especially those in high unemployment regions like the North, Quebec, and rural Atlantic Canada who lost access to an extra five weeks of benefits. Unemployed Canadians are now forced to accept jobs outside their field with lower wages and long commutes – difficult for women with family responsibilities. Changes to the rules for what you can earn while receiving benefits have shut out anyone working for low wages or for less than two days a week.
What unions are doing
Women with union jobs are more likely to meet the EI criteria when they need to access benefits. Joining a union is simply the best way for women to get better wages, hours of work, pensions and benefits, access to promotion and better working conditions. In fact, women in unions make $6.65 per hour more than women not in unions.
Unions lobby the federal government for changes to the EI system to make it fair for everyone. The EI system should reflect the realities of working lives and people who pay into the plan should be able to access it.
Changes should include:
- Reduce the number of qualifying hours (for regular benefits) to 360 hours, no matter who workers are or where they live and work in Canada.
- Measure a “week” as 30 hours instead of 35 when calculating benefit levels and duration, to reflect the average Canadian work week.
- Increase the benefits period to 50 weeks.
- Increase benefits to at least 60% of earnings being replaced calculated on a worker’s best 12 weeks.
Currently, only 3.7% of regular EI recipients receive training support, even while unemployment is high and sectors of the Canadian economy are short of skilled workers. Canada needs targeted programs to help women and workers from other equity-seeking groups to overcome barriers to employment, gain valuable on-the-job experience, and/or to acquire training in high-demand occupations and sectors.
Because work-life balance continues to present a significant challenge for women, Canada must improve compassionate caregiving benefits and parental leave for the other parent, as well as sickness benefits for workers with disabilities or illnesses lasting longer than 15 weeks.