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St.Thomas, Ontario: Chris Johnston of the CAW Local 1001 Sterling Truck Action Centre continues to help workers laid off after Daimler AG closed its Sterling Trucks plant in St. Thomas, Ontario in March 2009. (GEOFF ROBINS For The Globe and Mail)
St.Thomas, Ontario: Chris Johnston of the CAW Local 1001 Sterling Truck Action Centre continues to help workers laid off after Daimler AG closed its Sterling Trucks plant in St. Thomas, Ontario in March 2009. (GEOFF ROBINS For The Globe and Mail)

Globe Editorial

With courage, we can fix EI Add to ...

Most Canadians have little appetite for a federal election, meaning that the minority government can actually get to work in tackling one of Canada's biggest challenges - the dysfunctional Employment Insurance system. A new, non-governmental effort could give some cover to fix EI.

In the last recession, too many Canadians found that EI was not there to deliver on its basic promise: to provide an income when they unexpectedly lost their jobs. Only 48 per cent of the unemployed received EI benefits in 2009, but the regional differences were great, with fewer than 40 per cent of unemployed Ontarians and British Columbians receiving benefits. New and part-time workers face higher eligibility requirements, even though they pay into the system too; youth and immigrants get hurt as a result.

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A division of Canada into 58 regions, each with its own eligibility criteria, treats unemployed people in different parts of the country differently - even though their needs are the same. In some parts of Canada, workers qualify for EI after working as little as 11 weeks.

Those are the most pressing injustices that demand redress. A more ambitious reform would see better co-ordination between EI and provincial income security and training programs. And self-employed Canadians, new parents, and people who seek family leave time should be incorporated into the system, as long as it is not just those who expect to benefit from EI who pay into it.

A think tank, the Mowat Centre for Policy Innovation, has taken the lead, convening a task force with business, academic and labour representation. Its recommendations, based on equitable treatment of workers and fiscal responsibility, are expected in the spring.

Politicians have used EI for electoral gamesmanship, but they needn't in the coming year. EI works best as a counter-cyclical program, paying out more in benefits than it takes in when the economy is underperforming. With the economy rebounding, the general need for large amounts of EI payouts will go down. And that creates the opportunity to make changes that are fairer and fiscally prudent. If all parties set aside their narrow partisan and regional interests, a better system could be in sight.

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