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All the parties are proposing a slew of changes to Employment Insurance, which failed spectacularly in the early days of the pandemic and was replaced by the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) for several months.J.P. MOCZULSKI/The Globe and Mail

The pandemic has underscored the essential role of workers in a functioning society, from the men and women putting in long hours at hospitals to those stocking grocery store shelves and making deliveries.

In a health crisis that has disrupted countless work lives and led to millions of layoffs, it’s perhaps no surprise that Canada’s major political parties are looking to court labour with a raft of work-related proposals ahead of Monday’s federal election – while also nudging employers to ramp up their staff counts.

A shift is apparent in the platforms. The Liberal Party mentions “worker” or “workers” 106 times in its 2021 platform, compared with 35 references in 2019. The New Democratic Party does so on 90 occasions, up from 65. And the Conservative Party 108 times, a steep upswing from the 12 mentions two years ago.

That’s largely where the consensus ends. Between the contenders, their work proposals are radically different and have little overlap, rarely deviating from party orthodoxy regarding which people get support – and how much.

The Conservatives are focused on the Canada Workers Benefit (CWB), a refundable tax credit to help working, low-income individuals and families. The Tory plan would double the CWB to a maximum of $2,800 for individuals or $5,000 for families, paid as a quarterly direct deposit rather than an annual tax refund.

It is the Tories’ most expensive plan, comprising almost half of their $51.3-billion in proposed net new spending over five years. (For their part, the Liberals expanded access to the CWB in the spring budget with the aim of supporting an additional one million people.)

The key point is that it is income assistance tied to work and not given unconditionally, said Miles Corak, an economics professor at the City University of New York, whose research often focuses on Canada’s social policies.

“This benefit doesn’t give you a penny if you don’t work,” he noted. “Philosophically, it appeals to the conservative mindset.”

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All the parties are proposing a slew of changes to Employment Insurance, which failed spectacularly in the early days of the pandemic and was replaced by the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) for several months. The problems with EI predate the pandemic and can be boiled down to three core issues: It is slow to respond to economic shocks, it doesn’t cover enough of the unemployed, and payments can be meagre.

On the last issue, the NDP is proposing a low-income supplement so no one receiving EI would get less than $2,000 a month. In essence, that would make permanent the baseline of pandemic income support. It’s not clear what that would cost, as it was not assessed by the non-partisan Parliamentary Budget Officer.

During the pandemic, “I think a lot of people opened their eyes and said, ‘You know what, you kind of need $500 a week if you’re going to survive,’” said Jim Stanford, the director of the Centre for Future Work, a think tank.

A key concern is how to help the self-employed. They are largely shut out of EI benefits, which was part of the motivation for creating CERB (and later, the Canada Recovery Benefit).

The Liberals are proposing a “new EI benefit” for this cohort, providing support for up to 26 weeks. The self-employed would make the same EI contributions as an employee; the rest (normally covered by an employer) would require $1.4-billion in spending over the first four years, according to the party.

On gig workers, the Liberals say they would amend the Canada Labour Code to “strengthen rights” for those employed by digital platforms, such as Uber Technologies Inc., who are classified as contractors and thus miss out on a host of job protections afforded to employees. Those companies would also have to make EI and Canada Pension Plan contributions, based on changes to the Income Tax Act.

The Tories are taking a different approach. Rather than pay EI premiums, gig companies would contribute an equivalent amount to a “savings account” that workers could access in certain scenarios, such as job loss. Labour groups have broadly criticized the plan for not actually granting access to EI jobless benefits.

Gig workers “should be designated as an employee,” said Bea Bruske, president of the Canadian Labour Congress. “They should have full access to all the legislation, rights and benefits that any other worker has.”

The trouble, Mr. Stanford added, is that without enhanced legal protections for gig workers, their employers can offset the EI-like contributions by cutting pay. The Tories are “giving the employer what they want,” he said.

The economy is still recovering from the pandemic, and all the parties are looking to boost hiring. Based on today’s population, Canada would need another 400,000 workers for a full recovery of the employment rate.

The Liberals are looking to extend wage and rent subsidies to the hardest-hit businesses in tourism. The NDP would extend those subsidies until small businesses can “fully reopen.”

The Tories would let those programs expire next month. Instead, they would subsidize up to 50 per cent of wages for net new hires over six months. The program is somewhat similar to the Canada Recovery Hiring Program, which the Liberals launched in the summer, and would extend to March, 2022.

Ultimately, the employment solution may be more simple: getting COVID-19 under control.

“The major determinant of hiring decisions is the firm’s forecast of product demand,” Prof. Corak said. “The pandemic has thrown a wrench through the system and introduced all kinds of uncertainties.

“It’s putting the pandemic behind us that is going to give the boost to employment.”

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