Employment Insurance troubles await laid off tech workers

The world wide economic meltdown has left countless technology professionals uncertain about their future and as Canadian IT workers count the number of tech firms shutting down or laying off employees the country’s once vaunted employment insurance (EI) benefits offers very little reassurance.

Years of cutbacks have left very little by way of what laid off workers can receive from the benefit and accessing the money has become doubly hard, according to labour groups and employment law experts.

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“The maximum amount that individuals are entitled to right now is only $450 a week. But even at that, regulations make it harder for people to qualify for the benefit or access the funds,” according to Allison Dubarry, an IT analyst with the University of Toronto and president of the Steelworkers Union Local 1998 at the university.

Dubarry, an SAP developer, was among the many IT workers of the 6,000-member Local 1998 who took part in a rally this week held by the Good Jobs for All Coalition.

The alliance of more than 35 community, labour and student groups throughout the Greater Toronto Area picketed the Employment Insurance office in Scarborough, Toronto and demanded immediate EI reforms in the wake of increasing job losses in the province.

Ottawa recently announced that it was bumping up the period in which unemployed workers can receive EI by five extra weeks to a make it a maximum of 50 weeks. Under the proposed changes a wage-earner protection program will also ensure workers losing their jobs because of a bankruptcy will get some money owed to them by their company. The move is expected to cost $1.2 billion.

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“This will give EI recipients more time to get the extra training they need to find the right job,” Finance Minister Jim Flaherty said.

But these moves fall short, according to workers.

“Extending the benefits period for the few who already qualify is insufficient,” said Wayne Fraser, director of the Ontario and Atlantic Canada United Steelworkers.

He said Parliament should make more people eligible by setting qualifying hours at 360 and restoring benefits to at least 60 per cent of an individuals best 12 weeks of earnings.

A Toronto-based lawyer specializing in employment and human rights issues agrees. “It has simply become very difficult to qualify for and to get EI benefits,” says Daniel Lublin.

The EI process is cumbersome, ineffective and managed by poorly trained officers, he said. “Claimants who are struggling to make both ends meet typically wait for weeks or months to receive their benefits. The review process for special cases or complaints can take even longer because of red tape and poorly trained administrators.”

This log jam couldn’t have happened at a worst time.

The number of EI recipients rose by as much as 79,100 or 16.6 per cent between December 2007 and December 2008, according to Statistics Canada. Around 538, 200 Canadians received regular EI benefits in December, 2008, that’s 25,000 or 4.9 per cent more than the previous month.

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Despite these numbers, the proportion of unemployed workers covered by EI in Canada has plummeted from more than 80 per cent in the early 1990s to just over 40 per cent today. Moreover in areas similar to Ontario many well-paying permanent positions are being replaced by low-wage part-time, temporary or contractual or freelance work, many of which are not covered by EI.

Uneven EI policies across the country is making matters worst for unemployed workers and those facing layoff is cities like Toronto, according to IT analyst Dubarry of the U of T.

Back in the 1990s the Liberal government made changes to the EI by primarily lowering the benefits and increasing the number of accumulated work hours needed to qualify based on regional unemployment rates, she said.

For instance, qualifying hours in areas such as Ottawa, Calgary and Vancouver can be up to 700 hours and as low as 420 hours in high unemployment areas such as Manitoba or Saskatchewan. Residents in Toronto, Oakville, Ajax, Pickering and Uxbridge with a 7.2 per cent unemployment rate must work 630 hours to qualify for 40 weeks of EI benefits.

The average unemployed worker in Ontario last year received $5,110 in EI benefits, compared to $9,070 received by the average unemployed worker in the rest of Canada, according to Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty. He said the difference amounts to $1.7 billion for 450,000 unemployed Ontarians

This is bad news for those facing unemployment in areas such as the GTA where job losses recently shot up. Eight of the 12 Canadian cities hardest hit by the recession are located in Ontario.

“What the Good Jobs for All Coalition is asking for is that qualifying work hours be set for 360 hours countrywide and that benefits be raised from 55 per cent of income to 60 per cent of the worker’s best earning week,” said Dubarry.

What can you do if you have been recently laid off or suspect you might lose your job?

Employment lawyer Lublin has the following advice:

• Go about finding out what documents you need to file for EI benefits. Visit the Services Canada Website to get the pertinent information

• File for EI benefits as early as you can. Processing make take several weeks

• Keep a lid on expenses. EI benefits do not kick in until the period when the EI office calculates deems your severance money has run out. Remember this is based on their calculation not your financial realities

• You might run into to some delays. Try your best to get hold of a real perso

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