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(Ryan Remiorz/Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)
(Ryan Remiorz/Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

Pressure rises to tackle EI inequality Add to ...

Chris Johnston understands the ins and outs of Canada's Employment Insurance regime. It's the logic he's fuzzy on.

For the past four years Mr. Johnston has helped hundreds of workers laid off from Daimler AG's shuttered Sterling Trucks plant in St. Thomas, Ont., navigate the EI system and get on with their lives.

Workers living near the plant typically got the maximum 50 weeks of benefits. But if their home happened to be 70 kilometres down Highway 401 in Woodstock, Ont., where the regional jobless rate is a bit lower, they would get 10 weeks less.

One plant, identical employment prospects, and two sets of EI rules.

Dozens of workers were unfairly short-changed simply because of where they live, said Mr. Johnston, co-ordinator of the plant's adjustment centre. "They should be treated equally," he said.

Regional bias is just one of the bizarre anomalies facing unemployed workers trying to collect EI in Canada. Those chronically left outside the system include young people, new immigrants, part-timers and residents of the country's largest cities, according to the latest in a series of research papers by the Mowat Centre for Policy Innovation at the University of Toronto. A special EI task force, which is meeting in Toronto Friday, is conducting public consultation sessions and plans to release recommendations for overhauling the EI system early next year.

It's all part of a renewed push, endorsed by the federal NDP and the Ontario government, to nudge EI modernization back to the top of the political agenda.

But reform could prove to be a tough sell. The minority Harper government doesn't have much of an appetite for change, particularly if it could stir up regional passions. While Ontario, B.C. and Alberta would gain from making EI benefits more uniform, many of the traditional have-not provinces would resist. So far, Ottawa has contented itself with temporary fixes, including extending the duration of benefits in the 2009 federal budget and, more recently, limiting premium increases.

Meanwhile, the recession has exposed gaping holes and anomalies in Canada's employment insurance rules.

Most problematic is the fact that fewer than half of jobless Canadians are able to actually collect EI. And among those who do, benefits vary wildly from place to place, industry to industry, and worker to worker.

The current system spawns dependency on EI among seasonal workers in some parts of the country, while providing no cushion at all in hard times for millions of workers and employers elsewhere. For businesses, no EI means workers may not be available when orders pick up again if they have moved or changed fields. It's also unfair because these workers and their employers share the cost of EI, but rarely get to tap its benefits, including the funds offered for retraining.

Ontario may have the most to gripe about. Its unemployment rate has shot up to the fourth highest in the country at 8.2 per cent, and yet fewer of its jobless are collecting EI than in any other province - just 40 per cent.

Compare that with Newfoundland and New Brunswick where more than nine out of 10 unemployed collect EI.

Millions of people in major cities, such as Toronto, Calgary or Vancouver, pay into the system, but have a slim chance of collecting if they're out of work.

That fewer Canadians are getting EI isn't a particularly new phenomenon. The participation rate - the percentage of unemployed who actually get EI - has been steadily declining since the government tightened eligibility rules in the mid-1990s - to 48 per cent last year from a peak of 83 per cent in the early 1990s.

What has changed is the composition of the workforce. Far more Canadians than ever are working part-time, in more than one job, or on contract - all of which makes them less likely to qualify for benefits if they become unemployed.

"Large chunks of the labour force on not eligible for EI," pointed out Keith Banting, a professor of public policy at Queen's University. "The way the labour market is going, those categories of employees (part-timers and the self-employed) are growing, but EI is shrinking in its coverage of the labour force."

About 10 per cent of the jobless have paid EI premiums, but are underemployed and haven't worked enough to qualify for benefits. Another 30 per cent of jobless Canadians were self-employed, which means they don't contribute to EI and can't collect regular employment insurance benefits when work dries up.

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