COVID-19 in Canada: Further immediate EI reforms needed to protect more workers

New analysis finds most workers lack access to paid leave; two out of three don’t qualify for EI
March 16, 2020

OTTAWA — A briefing note released today by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) recommends critical changes to the federal employment insurance (EI) program that could be rapidly deployed in order support more vulnerable workers amid the growing COVID-19 pandemic. 

The new analysis looks at which workers are least likely to have access to paid leave in the event of quarantine (either mandatory, employer requested or self-imposed), school closures forcing parents to stay home, or other COVID-19 work disruptions. It finds wide discrepancies in the receipt of paid leave based on income levels, geography and gender.

“It’s a myth that most Canadians can telecommute to their jobs. The professions with the largest share of workers in Canada are truck driving, trades, cleaning, cashiering, food prep and care work. They won’t be able to work from home, and in many cases will be on the front lines of this situation,” says briefing note author and CCPA Senior Economist David Macdonald. “For those who are employed, half of Canadians likely have little employer-paid leave time to fall back on. For them, ‘work from home’ requirements, closed schools or quarantine will mean lost shifts and plummeting incomes.” 

Among the findings of the analysis

  • Only 38% of illness or disability leave and 23% of family responsibility leave of over a week was paid by employers in 2019.
  • Only 14% of leave of more than a week taken by workers in the lowest income decile in 2019 was paid, while those in the top decile had 74% of their leave of over a week covered by their employer. 
  • Only one in five workers making $15 an hour or less had leave over a week long paid by employers in 2019. Previous CCPA research found that in 2017, just 28% of those workers were eligible for EI benefits.
  • In the accommodation and food services sector only 19% of the leave over a week that workers took in 2019 was paid for by an employer. 
  • Paid leave is also unevenly distributed geographically: In Ottawa and Quebec City, for example, 60% of leave was paid by employers. Much more leave goes unpaid in Edmonton (43% paid), Hamilton (43% paid) and Vancouver (45% paid).
  • Only 33% of unemployed women and 38% of unemployed men received EI benefits in 2018. 
  • Only 17% of self-employed workers and 20% of part-time workers got any EI benefits that year.

The analysis recommends seven immediate changes to EI that would better protect workers, including: waiving the sick note requirement for accessing the sickness benefit; expanding the definition of “quarantine” to cover not only official quarantine, but self-quarantine and employer enforced quarantine; creating an emergency EI benefit fund for those that don’t qualify; and lowering qualifying hours for EI benefits to 360 hours, among other actions. 

“With inadequate employer paid leave and too few unemployed workers receiving EI, we’ve set up a system in Canada where front-line workers will regularly have to decide between staying home when sick and being able to pay for rent or feeding their families. Not only is that an unfair choice, it's dangerous. Policymakers should act quickly to make sure there is another option,” says Macdonald.

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COVID-19 and the Canadian Workforce: Reforming EI to protect more workers is available for download on the CCPA website. For more information and interviews contact Alyssa O’Dell, CCPA Media and Public Relations Officer, at [email protected] or 343-998-7575.

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