Make way for the vast reform of employment insurance

The pandemic will have exposed all the flaws in the federal employment insurance program. And as the Omicron variant prepares to delay the return to normal even further, the grand reform promised years ago has become all the more relevant. Responsible Minister Carla Qualtrough is well aware of this. In interview at Duty, she promises to provide an outline of the renewed program this spring.

Appointed Minister of Employment in November 2019, Qualtrough will have been in office four months before the labor market almost completely confined itself, with the arrival of COVID-19. Millions of Canadians have stopped working. Many of them were not entitled to employment insurance. Within days, the minister and the government established the Canada Emergency Benefit to help them.

“It was a whirlwind, says Mme Qualtrough, in interview in his office on Parliament Hill. It was very heavy as a responsibility. Everything had serious consequences for the country, for the citizens. “

The crisis is not over. Ottawa forecast in its economic update Tuesday billions of dollars more to ward off this fifth wave. Minister Qualtrough is already tackling the sequel.

“It’s hard to convince people to take care of these big issues when you’re still in the midst of a crisis,” she agrees. But her consultations to modernize the complex program are going well, she says. And the government’s intentions should be known in the next budget, since the mandate letter sent to the minister by Justin Trudeau published on Thursday invites her to “present and start implementing [sa réforme] by summer 2022 ”.

The federal government began to reform by decree a year ago. To address the end of the ECP and the transition to the Canada Economic Stimulus Benefit, Ottawa has made it easier for millions of Canadians to access EI for the millions who otherwise would not have been entitled to it.

These temporary measures will end in September 2022. Minister Qualtrough must therefore decide, in concert with the Council of Ministers, whether she will perpetuate some of them or modify others. And propose these changes through a bill to be tabled no later than June.

“We are absolutely moving forward with the modernization of employment insurance,” she swears.

Something to rejoice Pierre Céré, of the National Council of the Unemployed, who has been calling for a major reform for years and who was rightly reassured to see Qualtrough reappointed after the election. “That’s a damn good sign,” he observed shortly after being sworn in.

Expand access

The minister warns that the reform will be done in stages. To begin with, Ottawa could permanently reduce the number of hours it takes to qualify and review the definition of eligible worker in order to include contract workers and those in the cultural sector, who do not qualify for the job. ‘actual hour.

“These are a perfect example of why we must modernize employment insurance,” insists Qualtrough. The cultural industry often operates on contracts, which do not always provide enough working hours for its members to access the program.

The system therefore does not maintain an exhaustive list of cultural workers, which means that the short-term solution will not go through employment insurance, but through a fund of $ 62 million announced without details on Tuesday.

In September 2020, the eligibility threshold for the program was increased to 420 hours worked (rather than 700), and the waiting period imposed in the event of severance pay was abolished.

Minister Qualtrough clarified that these changes should not be assumed to be repeated as is. Employees and employers have differing views. The former want an even more accessible program, while the latter fear a dissuasive effect on work.

Once this first phase is completed, the minister will assess whether it is necessary to modify the amount of benefits as well as their duration and will work on the Liberals’ promise to offer a benefit to self-employed workers in 2023.

His thoughts also focus on how the program is funded, currently paid for by contributions from employers and employees. If eligibility for benefits is broadened, the minister wonders whether the federal government should perhaps contribute to them. “It all depends on the level of ambition we want to show. “

Slowed down by an archaic computer system

One thing is certain, however: this major reform, promised since 2015, will still take time.

Because the government’s computer system is heavy and outdated. “The system doesn’t allow us to make multiple changes at the same time. “For example, the extension of sick leave benefits from 15 to 26 weeks will take 18 months to come into effect, in September 2022.” This is the time it takes for the codes of the system to be modified. It’s frustrating. But this is the system with which we have to work, ”explains the minister. At the same time, the system must continue to provide benefits to millions of Canadians every two weeks. “We are perfecting the train while it is in motion. “

Mme Qualtrough is also due to complete the consultations that began this summer. “It’s all part of a bigger program. You have to have a global approach, ”she argues.

Time is running out, however, for Justin Trudeau’s minority government. The minister agrees that there is no guarantee that all the reform will succeed before the next election.

But workers excluded from the current program and advocacy groups for the unemployed are impatient. “Mme Qualtrough knows the file and it knows where it is going, ”said Pierre Céré last month. “Now we have to see if there will be the political will in the government,” he qualified however.

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