I call this meeting to order. Welcome to meeting number 20 of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Human Resources, Skills and Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities.
Today's meeting is taking place in a hybrid format pursuant to the House order of January 25, 2021. The proceedings will be made available via the House of Commons website. The webcast will always show the person speaking rather than the entirety of the committee.
Pursuant to Standing Order 108(2) and the motion adopted by the committee on Wednesday, October 28, 2020, the committee will resume its study of the review of the employment insurance program.
I would like to welcome our witnesses to begin our discussion, with five minutes of opening remarks followed by questions. From the Associated Designers of Canada, we have Kenneth MacKenzie, president, and from the Canadian Labour Congress, we have Hassan Yussuff, president, and Chris Roberts, director, social and economic policy.
For the benefit of our witnesses, I would like to make a few additional comments. Interpretation in this video conference will work very much like it does in a regular committee meeting. You have the choice at the bottom of your screen of “floor”, “English” or “French”.
When speaking, please speak slowly and clearly. When you are not speaking, your mike should be on mute.
We're going to start with Mr. MacKenzie.
Welcome to the committee. You have the floor for five minutes.
Hello. Thank you so much for having me here today. Thank you also for the ongoing commitment from all of the parties in providing support for so many individuals through the course of this challenging past year.
My name is Ken MacKenzie. I’m the president of the Associated Designers of Canada and of IATSE local ADC659.
We represent live performance designers in the field of set, costume, lighting, sound and video design across Canada outside of Quebec. We've also been a part of the Creative Industries Coalition alongside our colleagues at Canadian Actors' Equity Association, the Canadian Federation of Musicians and IATSE, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees. This coalition represents upwards of 50,000 arts workers from coast to coast. We've worked shoulder to shoulder with members of this Parliament to mitigate some of the short-term financial devastation of the COVID-19 pandemic on arts sector workers.
As we look to the future and consider how we rebuild into a more resilient sector and how, as gig workers and self-employed artists, we might be able to make ourselves less vulnerable in situations of economic and social disruption, one of the suggestions we offer is a re-examination of the employment insurance program in Canada. As it stands, the overwhelming majority of live performance designers are self-employed contractors and currently employment insurance offers self-employed workers the ability to opt in only to a partial system. Participants can contribute to EI special benefits, maternity, parental, sickness, compassionate care, but are unable to contribute to and therefore are ineligible for EI regular benefits.
Not allowing self-employed workers to participate fully in the EI program puts gig workers at a disadvantage. As gig and self-employed workers become a larger part of the workforce, the EI program must evolve to accommodate them so that they can contribute to and receive the full benefits available to traditional employees through EI regular benefits.
Live performance designers, like many other gig workers, are contracted in unique ways that may not align with the existing EI structure, but which will have to be accommodated for. The existing fisher benefits provide a useful model that could be adapted and expanded to suit the sector. Many gig workers are not contracted on an hourly or weekly basis, but are paid a flat fee per contract, regardless of the length of the contract. These contracts include defined residency periods when the worker is obligated to the employer, so the calculation of EI eligibility should be established based on contract residency duration. The rate of EI benefits should be established based on eligible earnings within a prescribed period or cumulative contract periods.
Designers, like many contract workers, are often contracted months or even years in advance. This does not mean that they begin work immediately and may still encounter significant gaps in employment between contracts. A revised EI system must allow for workers to be eligible for benefits during these gaps in employment, even if they have future work. Equally, workers should not be penalized for small gaps in between contract residencies but which are not sufficient to be unemployment. Arts workers, like fishers, should be eligible to receive up to 26 weeks of EI benefits per period of unemployment.
All self-employed workers are currently responsible to pay both employee and employer CPP contributions and if a revised EI program requires workers to make both the full employee and employer EI contributions, it will be financially debilitating, especially for arts workers who already live so close to the bone and are centred in the more expensive major urban areas across the country. EI premiums must be equitable and affordable. EI reforms should consider contributions from the contractor and the contractee that run parallel to the employee and employer contributions that are standard.
More than ever, the pandemic has underscored the importance of the arts in people's lives. Movies, television series, music are where people have turned to for comfort and laughter and escape. Canadians need the arts and we've been there for Canadians.
I thank all of you for responding so quickly to keep our sector and others alive through the support of the wage subsidy, the CERB and now the CRB. I urge the Canadian government to continue to support arts workers now and to help us to create the resilience that our all-too-vulnerable self-employed arts sector needs in the future.
Merci. Thank you very much for your time.
Thank you, Mr. Chair and committee members, for the opportunity to present on behalf of the Canadian Labour Congress.
First, I want to start by thanking the government for providing emergency income support to workers in need during the pandemic. Nearly three million jobs were lost in March and April 2020.
The unprecedented scale of job loss has simply overwhelmed the EI system, but it wasn't just in its administrative capacity. The EI program has been so eroded that a great number of low-paid, female, racialized and non-standard workers would have been left behind. These are the workers hardest hit by the economic shock of the pandemic.
These workers will also benefit from Bill and the extension of EI and recovery benefits proposed by the government. The CLC fully supports rapid passage of this legislation that is before the House.
Going forward, we must address the long-standing weakness in the EI system.
The most important task is to expand access and increase benefit levels. In the late 1980s, 85% of the unemployed qualified for unemployment insurance benefits. After regressive policy change in the 1990s, about 40% of unemployed workers are eligible for EI. Eligibility restrictions especially hurt workers in part-time and non-standard work arrangements, such as women, youth and racialized workers.
In such places as Vancouver and the GTA, just one in five unemployed receives benefits at any given time. Going forward, we must construct an EI program that includes rather than excludes the unemployed workers. This is why the CLC is calling for a single, national entrance requirement, equal to the lesser of 360 hours or 12 weeks.
EI's low benefit rates and low ceiling on insurable earnings also excludes workers. For workers earning above the average, the effective replacement rate is far lower than 55%. Applying for EI benefits may seem hardly worth the trouble. For low-paid workers, the EI replacement rate is simply too low. Fifty-five per cent of very low earnings is just not enough to live on.
The CLC is calling for a livable maximum individual benefit and an increase in the benefit rate and ceiling on insurable earnings.
The government can make other immediate changes to improve EI.
First, the government should extend the maximum duration of EI sickness benefits, and the government is committed to doing this.
Second, it should also end the allocation of separation money. Suspending this practice during the pandemic has led to administrative efficiency and fewer appeals and was the right thing to do. The government should also make this change permanent.
Third, it should also address the unfairness of having migrant workers pay EI contributions without a realistic chance of receiving benefits. This could take the form of restoring the ability of migrant workers to access parental benefits, for example. This would not be too costly a reform.
Fourth, the government should reinstate regional EI liaison agents, as this committee recommended in 2016. During the pandemic, auto plants and meat-packing facilities have temporarily shut down in response to the outbreak. EI liaison officers would have made establishing new claims far more efficient.
Fifth, the skills boost initiative, which lets unemployed workers use their EI benefit while getting training, should be opened up and expanded. In an unemployment crisis such as the present one, more jobless workers should be able to enrol full time in an educational program without losing their benefits.
Sixth, the government should allow fully for a commitment to bring back the tripartite appeal system and make it accountable to the EI commissioner, as it once was.
I want to conclude with some final comments.
The current government has committed to combatting precariousness and improving job quality. An important step towards reducing inequality and job market precarity is to expand access to EI benefits and make them more adequate.
Extending the maximum duration of benefits will improve the quality of job matches. Improving access to EI and increasing benefit levels will also encourage employers to improve job quality.
Starting in 1993, jobless workers who voluntarily left employment without just cause or who were dismissed for misconduct were totally disqualified from EI benefits. This penalty is unfair, counterproductive and unnecessarily harsh. It should be reversed.
I want to thank the committee for the opportunity to present. I'll take any questions from the committee members.
Thank you so much.
Unfortunately, opposition members don't control the legislative agenda. That's up to the House leader of the government who has really, in our view, severely mishandled the legislative agenda for quite some time. They've prioritized strange bills. They've just brought this one forward, yet we're incredibly under the wire to ensure that people don't get cut off on March 28.
As you know, opposition members have a duty to ensure that they review legislation to a large extent to prevent errors such as we saw in September in legislation that allowed vacationers to claim benefits. Had there been a more normal legislative time for that and other pieces of legislation.... There have been several errors. We know that pregnant women were left out of the original supports early on in the pandemic. We see these errors happening when legislation is passed quickly without official opposition oversight that we would see in normal times.
I'm greatly concerned that you told the Liberal government at the beginning of January that the 26 weeks was not going to be sufficient, yet they failed to bring forward legislation to address that issue until the end of February. That's a month and a half after you raised the alarm bell.
I'll further note that when you released your press release, you were very concerned about this. Only two days later, they mentioned to Canadians that they were going to fix this problem, but they had known about it from you since the beginning of January. I find that all very odd. I'll continue to pursue why the Liberal government waited so long to bring forward this legislation.
Thank you, Mr. Chair. That's all for me today on this.
Thank you, Chair, and sorry about that confusion.
Good afternoon to our witnesses. Thank you for your presentations.
Mr. Yussuff, it's certainly great to see you again. I think we first met here in Saint John, New Brunswick. You came down for the Day of Mourning and laid a wreath on behalf of the CLC at the Frank & Ella Hatheway monument here in Saint John.
I've been on HUMA going on six years. I remember the first questions I asked you were about the Conservative union-busting bills and . It seems like a long time ago.
Anyway, I want to focus on the EI benefits and the expanded benefits. I would certainly concur that the opposition is there to challenge and oppose, but when it comes to impeding the progress of a bill that would affect thousands and thousands of Canadians, I think we all should be very concerned.
We're certainly aware that in late February, came forth with an extension of the CRB and the caregiving benefit, and the additional 24 weeks of EI. We all know how critical those programs are. Certainly, I will say that we have seen first-hand how critical a strong EI system and EI programs are to support workers, especially during what I would call, obviously, a historic crisis, a historic pandemic.
Mr. Yussuff, on February 25, as we know, the government tabled Bill , which would extend EI regular benefits for Canadians who are unable to work due to the pandemic. Yesterday the bill was read a second time, and the Conservatives refused to allow this bill to be sent to committee.
Just to make the committee aware, if these EI benefits are not extended, in the first week alone, 23,000 Canadians will lose access to their only source of income support. Every week that they delay, tens of thousands of Canadians will exhaust their EI benefits.
Mr. Yussuff, with the Conservatives delaying the implementation of this bill, what impact do you believe this will have on Canadians?
First, I would hope that the Conservative Party and their leaders would find it necessary to support this legislation before the benefits of these workers expire. Should the bill not be passed in a timely manner, it's going to have devastating consequences. If they get no benefits, the only option these workers will have is to go on social assistance.
There's a significant difference in what workers are going to have to support their families versus what they are getting with their benefits right now. The differences are starkly like night and day.
I would simply plead with the members of this committee today to take the message back to their respective leaders to prioritize this and recognize the importance of this. There's no reason to deny working families the support that is promised in the legislation; otherwise, it's going to have a devastating impact on working families.
One of the things we have to be concerned about is that people need certainty. As terrible as the pandemic has been for working people, one of the things that has been very good is that people have not had to fend for themselves. To a large extent, the government has provided benefits to take care of all of those who, through no fault of their own, have lost their jobs.
More importantly, these workers still need that support. There are thousands and thousands of workers who don't have a job to go back to. These benefits are going to be critical in providing the support they need to continue to pay their rent, buy food and support their families.
It's critical, I think, for committee members to find the goodwill to support the legislation and pass it in a timely manner before the end of March.
It fits as a top priority.
We would very much like for the economy to return and be even better than it was pre-pandemic. Ultimately, there's nothing better than a worker having a job to go back to, and a job, of course, that can pay them a decent wage to take care of their families. However, the priority right now and our number one issue is to extend these benefits as the committee is considering what changes we can look forward to in regard to reforming the EI system.
Our top priority is obviously to get the legislation passed in a timely manner, and also for the committee to keep doing its work to recommend to the government proposed changes that could happen to the EI system going forward.
I would like to greet the witnesses and tell them it's a great pleasure to have them here.
My question is for the president of the Canadian Labour Congress.
Mr. Yussuff, thank you for accepting our invitation to testify.
Your organization represents 3.3 million workers. That's quite impressive. You have come to meet with us as part of a review of the employment insurance program. I will do my best to avoid talking about Bill . The Bloc Québécois is going to support the bill because it's a temporary measure that will end on September 21, 2021. We are here to determine what kind of permanent measures to implement.
Am I wrong in thinking that your call for increasing to 50 the number of weeks of benefits for which people are eligible existed long before this whole emergency measures debate and that it's part of your vision for reform?
I don't think it's too late.
Obviously, the bill contains an extension of benefits for 50 weeks. This is a recognition, of course, of the hardship that workers are going through, through no fault of their own, because of the duration of this pandemic. More importantly, I think we need to have a very thorough examination of the duration of benefits that should be permanently enacted in regard to the reform that the members of the committee will recommend and consider.
We certainly are recommending that. We recognize that, more often than not, through no fault of their own, workers lose their jobs through a variety of different things happening in the economy, but equally, we need to ensure that workers are going to have income. More importantly, as we are going to retrain a lot of workers who might not be going back to their job, we need to ensure that we can provide the support for them so they can get training at the same time.
Thank you very much for that question.
What the pandemic certainly has revealed to a large extent is that women are bearing the larger burden of this. One, of course, is the responsibility of family. Despite all of their efforts, women still bear the majority of that responsibility.
More importantly, of course, what we're seeing in how the pandemic is evolving is that women still remain unemployed. As we look to reform, we need to recognize that we should really look through a gender lens at how we are going to deal with issues that specifically affect women.
One of the recommendations we have made, and I think there's a commitment of the government to do this, is to extend the EI sick benefit far more often. Women are needing that benefit, and we know that the duration of it is far too short. A critical part of the reform is to ensure that we can extend that benefit especially when they're struggling with surgeries or cancer treatment. We need to ensure that they're going to continue to have support and not lose that while they're still struggling with their recovery when they're going through a sickness. That will be one of the issues.
Women traditionally work in what we would call the service sector. Quite often they're likely to have a shorter duration of work, shorter hours. Raising the maximum will be critical to ensure that they're going to get a benefit at the end of the year. It's also a way to ensure that the employer can look at the job market to make sure they can regain the women back into the workforce and improve the conditions in which they're working.
There are two different ways. First of all, right now the sick benefit for COVID is two weeks. Some workers might have already taken advantage of that. I think in Bill the government extended that again for additional time, should workers need that benefit.
I think we have two problems in this country overall, and I want to speak to that so at least there is an appreciation. In terms of the provinces, I think there are only two—or well, three—jurisdictions in the country that have some form of what are called sick days under employment standards legislation. In the federal system, we have sick days, a small number, three days, and we can make an argument for why it should be extended beyond that in the federal code.
The Province of Quebec has sick days in its employment standards legislation. P.E.I., to its credit, has one sick day for workers should they need it.
More jurisdictions in the country need to bring in sick days as a permanent requirement for workers in the provincial jurisdiction so that when workers get sick, they can actually take sick days off from their work and not lose pay. That's something that I think should happen at a provincial level.
However, for the protection of workers right now in the federal jurisdiction, there are COVID-related benefits that extend that benefit, and should they require it, they are going to have that. We're also making an argument that under the EI sick leave provision, the current 16 weeks should be extended to a longer period to ensure that if workers have symptoms that will keep them off work for a longer period, they are able to access EI, but should be able to access EI for a much longer period.
I think there is generally an understanding that the government was talking about doing this, but again, I'm hoping that in this reform we can see that happen sooner rather than later.
My next question relates to Canadians living with episodic disability. We know that they account for half of Canadians of working age living with a disability. You recommended that ESDC undertake a review into how episodic disabilities fit into the EI sickness benefit framework, to identify mechanisms to increase access.
We know that effective disability support is a prerequisite for meaningful income support that enables Canadians living with disabilities to meet their most basic needs, yet this still doesn't occur in Canada. When we talk about people being left behind, I think we can all agree that disabled persons are one of the groups that were left behind before, but were just horribly left behind during the pandemic.
Your proposal addresses episodic disability and the potential to include this in the EI sickness benefit. Can you explain the benefit of taking your proposed approach and what happens to Canadians living with chronic disability?
It's a very timely issue, given what we're learning about the experience of individuals who've contracted COVID, that many of them are so-called “long-haulers”. They have a long and episodic set of symptoms that return and recur periodically over time.
For individuals with episodic disabilities, the EI sickness benefit, and really the EI system itself, isn't very well set up to deal with people who are sick for a few days, then are well enough to work for the next few days, and then are sick again.
I think there has to be a real searching evaluation of how the EI system deals with those individuals with episodic disabilities. There is not a simple answer to that, but I think there is growing appreciation that the weeks-based system of EI isn't really well set up to deal with those individuals.
I think a whole lot of other changes could be made to the EI sickness benefit that could help. Certainly with respect to EI benefits generally, if we drop the hours requirement, more individuals working with disabilities are going to have access to EI regular benefits and other benefits as well.
Also, I think we can examine the premium reduction program that incentivizes employers to offer short-term disability, and private insurance as well, to ensure that there's a good fit with an expanded EI sickness benefit.
I have one follow-up question.
One of the motions that the NDP put forward, certainly for persons with disabilities, is a guaranteed livable basic income. This is something that has been widely supported by the disability community across the country, in addition to current and future government programs and supports. Do you think this is something that would benefit the disabled community?
I ask that because we know that, for example, although not EI in terms of people falling through the cracks, 70% of adults with cognitive disabilities live in poverty and might not even be able to work. Do you think expanding our social safety net, building on our EI benefits, would be helpful?
Thank you very much, Mr. Chair, and thank you to both of our witnesses today.
Mr. MacKenzie, I wanted to give you an opportunity to comment on something that my colleague, Mr. Long, brought up with Mr. Yussuff earlier on about Bill , realizing that EI doesn't cover all of your workers. It is a very important discussion that we're having today.
Back on February 25, the government tabled Bill , which would extend EI benefits for Canadians who are unable to work due to the pandemic. Yesterday, the bill was read a second time, and the Conservatives refused to allow this bill to be sent to the committee, even though my colleague on the opposite side of the House said that it was a straightforward bill, and she felt that she would recommend it to her party. However, for some reason, they've decided to draw this out, and now tens of thousands of Canadians are at risk of losing income support in the middle of a pandemic.
Mr. MacKenzie, what does this delay in the extension of the benefits mean for your members?
I truly regret that we are debating Bill C-24. The bill needs to pass. It's going to come back to the committee, and witnesses are going to appear before us. The sooner that happens, the better it will be for workers.
I will now return to the focus of our study, which is EI reform, and ask a question of Mr. Yussuff, president of the Canadian Labour Congress.
When our EI system was set up, the government was contributing to it. You said the system had regressed rather than progressed financially.
In terms of funding the program, do you believe that the government should restore some funding as part of reforms?
I think it's been far too low. I think this pandemic has revealed the inadequacy of the benefit level. We've been paying people the minimum. Far too many people have been struggling just to maintain any sense of ability to pay their bills and meet their obligations.
I think that earlier, the government set the benefit level at $500 per week for the CERB, recognizing that if you want workers not to fall further behind, you have to pay them a decent benefit.
I think we have to start from someplace. We believe that the maximum has to increase and the minimum has to increase because this has been frozen for far too long. There's a real need to examine what the levels should be. Equally, I think it has to go up.
It also disadvantaged women equally, who are highly dependent on their benefit. The last thing we want to do is to pay them such a low benefit that people don't think it's worth collecting it at the end of the day. It's critical that we recognize in this reform that the benefit level needs to go up, and we need to make sure we set it at the appropriate level to ensure that people in this country can meet their basic needs.
I was going to ask Mr. Yussuff if he liked yes-or-no questions, but that in itself is a yes-or-no question, so I'll move on from that.
We had a witness who effectively said that we're in the process of trying to build a system for the next decade based on economic models from the last century. If you look at the testimony around the strength of the EI computer system, it may be even older than that.
I guess the question is this. What advice do you have for us on how we pivot to the next 10 years, instead of the last 10 minutes, last 10 years or last century, in terms of making sure EI works for a modern work environment where, quite clearly, nine to five from Monday to Friday and two weeks off in the summer is no longer the regular pattern for virtually every Canadian worker?
I call the meeting back to order.
Today, the committee is meeting as part of its study on the review of the employment insurance program.
I'd like to make a few comments for the new witnesses.
Before speaking, please wait until I recognize you by name. When you are ready to speak, please click on the microphone icon to unmute yourself.
Interpretation in this video conference is provided. At the bottom of your screen, you have the choice of “floor”, “English” or “French”.
Please speak slowly and clearly. When you are done speaking, please put your mic on mute.
I would now like to welcome our witnesses as we continue our discussion. They will have five minutes for opening remarks, which will be followed by questions.
Please welcome Mr. Denis Bolduc, secretary general of the Fédération des travailleurs et travailleuses du Québec.
From the Prince Edward Island Federation of Labour, we have Carl Pursey, president.
We will start with Mr. Bolduc.
Welcome to the committee, Mr. Bolduc. You have the floor for five minutes.
Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for welcoming me today to talk about employment insurance.
From the outset, I must tell you that the FTQ is counting heavily on the current government to carry out a complete and comprehensive reform of employment insurance. For several years now, we have been calling for an in-depth review of the program. I can also tell you that the Quebec labour movement is on the same page. The four central labour bodies in Quebec, the FTQ, the Confédération des syndicats nationaux, or CSN, the Centrale des syndicats du Québec, or CSQ, and the Centrale des syndicats démocratiques, or CSD, are all singing from the same songbook, and are all singing in harmony. I don't want to speak for them, but I can tell you that we are in complete agreement on the changes that should be made to the current program.
Essentially, we are looking to safeguard human dignity. In that sense, the program should be seen and treated as a social good.
Yesterday was International Women's Day. I would be remiss if I did not bring that up. Women took part in demonstrations and activities across the country. It was all over the media.
Yet the Institut de la statistique du Québec has reminded us of the significant gap that still exists between the average salaries of a woman and a man. For positions that require a university education, we're talking about a gap of $3 per hour. I know that you are sensitive to the status of women, ladies and gentlemen of the committee. We are too. It is one of the factors that has guided our thinking on the changes we want to see made to employment insurance.
In addition to being paid less, women are underrepresented in non-standard jobs. I'm thinking in particular of seasonal jobs in tourism, hotels, restaurants and so on. Those who work in non-standard jobs, including women, should not be penalized for doing so. They should be able to qualify for an adequate length of time and an adequate level of income replacement. For that, we need non-discriminatory access to EI benefits.
The health crisis has clearly demonstrated the importance of income support programs. They are essential in the event of bad luck or job loss. The pandemic has also underscored the inconsistency of the employment insurance program in its current form. It has highlighted the urgent need to accelerate the process that will lead to real reform.
In the past year, the government has had to put in place emergency income support programs. Access to emergency measures was streamlined because, overnight, a lot of people found themselves in a precarious situation. It was not perfect, that's true. However, help was made available on an urgent basis, and that was very necessary. It also showed us that the pathways to the program need to be simplified. Someone who is unfamiliar with the employment insurance program, or has never used it, must be able to apply easily. Processing times must be faster and shorter.
Since 1990, so for 30 years, the government has not contributed to the employment insurance fund. The program is financed by the contributions from workers and from employers. We tend to forget this, but it is the reality. That is the main reason why you must pay close attention to what the workers we represent want and are asking for. We need a comprehensive program reform for the workers. They need to know that the program in place meets their needs and properly covers everyone who pays into it.
As I appear before you today, I want to take the opportunity to mention that, in the eyes of the FTQ, it's essential that the current emergency support programs be extended, particularly for the unemployed. That is our message today.
The proposed changes would increase the maximum number of weeks of benefits that eligible workers would be entitled to from 26 to 50.
I know that, in order to take effect, the program must receive unanimous support from all parties in Parliament. The pandemic hurt. I know men and women who have yet to get their jobs back. They wonder if and when their employer will call them back to work. They need this support.
They need a clear message from Ottawa that parliamentarians understand their situation and are taking action to ensure their well-being, their self-worth and their dignity.
Thank you very much for your attention.
I'm Carl Pursey, president of the P.E.I. Federation of Labour. I'd like to thank you, Mr. Chair, and committee members, for the opportunity to appear today on this important issue.
I think EI reform and a guaranteed livable income need to be studied separately as EI reform is long overdue, while the guaranteed livable income needs to be prepared properly for a long-lasting, successful implementation. In order to do this, we need to look at a rapid return to full employment for those who want to work, with no one being forced to work. These jobs should look like full-time positions, with benefits available and created by government and employers.
The barriers to employment will need to be addressed beforehand too, such as affordable child care programs, national pharmacare, and transportation systems to meet the needs of workers. These things must be addressed prior to the full program rollout. If we don't address these needs first, the program will not succeed.
Moving on to EI, a complete review of all aspects of the system is well overdue and must be completed immediately. EI needs to consider all workers who are currently not eligible, such as independent contractors, gig and migrant workers, and so on, with short-term and long-term plans to provide comprehensive and permanent reforms.
The zone issue needs to be fixed here in P.E.I., as well as in other areas of the country that have seasonal work. Small communities of 50 people are divided by the centre of the road, with one side in one zone and the other side in another. P.E.I. should only have one zone because of its size. As workers from different zones often commute to the same place to work, one worker is able to draw more money for a longer period of time while the other has to work more hours and qualify for less EI benefits and draws for a much shorter period of time.
There are other things we need to fix in EI. We need to ensure that all workers have access, with one qualifying rule of 360 hours or 12 weeks for all EI benefits, with a floor of a minimum of $500 per week or 70% of their wages, whichever is greater.
Workers should also be able to draw for up to 50 weeks with the combined benefits, to a maximum of 104 weeks. In this way, workers can qualify for unemployment benefits based on the same hours of work used to qualify for special benefits. EI sickness and quarantine benefit weeks must also be increased to 50 weeks.
We must also ensure justice and have a fair appeals process for all benefits. Working while on claim needs to be changed and not deducted dollar for dollar as this discourages workers wanting to work for short periods, causing employers problems and making it difficult for them to get employees to work a day or two at a time.
Workers who aren't happy with their employment situation and wish to better themselves by furthering their education should be able to do so and still qualify to receive benefits. This will also open up the position that they left for someone else to fulfill.
The clawback of separation moneys must end, as this is a benefit that workers have been paying into over many years of their employment. It should not be deducted from their unemployment. EI access during a labour dispute is also something we need look at. Workers need to have this access as it would level the playing field and they would not be looking at no pay during a lockout, which currently gives the employer the upper hand.
Training money spent also needs to be reviewed because some employers have been using it as a revolving door to terminate employees who have reached their Red Seal and hire new ones to receive more training funds. These firms are only accessing the funds to train apprentices. They have no intention of retaining fully trained or certified employees.
We also need to ensure labour is involved in meaningful social dialogue on LMDA spending at the provincial level. We need to establish multi-year core funding for unemployed work centres in the provinces.
We need to return to a fully tripartite board of referees model for first-level appeals. We should also ensure the protection of francophone rights for those living outside Quebec to receive services from the government in French. The EI commission must be given a mandate to proceed with a comprehensive review of the EI program, with a timeline to present the changes to government.
The federal government must extend COVID-19 income support until the end of the year or the official end of this pandemic.
Thank you for this opportunity.
Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
Thank you, Mr. Pursey, for your work for the workers of P.E.I.
Thank you, Mr. Bolduc, for what you and the FTQ members are doing for workers in my constituency and across Quebec.
I would like to pick up where you left off. Yesterday, the FTQ issued a news release with the headline “FTQ calls for solidarity among federal opposition parties to endorse the extension of unemployment assistance programs”. Of course, I fully agree with that. The committee should study the bill.
Can you explain what would happen to unemployed men and women if they were denied benefits in the event that we are unable to pass the bill before the assistance measures expire?
It's an issue we are very concerned about. In fact, I mentioned it in my opening remarks.
We are very concerned about the plight of workers, many workers, who have lost their jobs and still do not see when they will be able to get them back. In the aviation sector, for example, all flight attendants in Quebec who are members of the FTQ have lost their jobs, whether at Air Canada, Air Transat or another airline.
The same is true in the tourism sector, which has been greatly affected by the pandemic. Currently, the hotel occupancy rate is about 5% in Quebec. We need to be concerned about these workers.
Every day, workers share their fears with me. They see their employment insurance benefits ending in March, and they wonder what will happen to them. These workers' concerns need to be addressed in the program.
We support extending employment insurance benefits to 50 weeks. In fact, we hope that provision will become permanent. It is one of our requests. We have proposed up to a maximum of 52 weeks, but we would still be happy with 50 weeks.
First, it is very important that the program's eligibility criteria be changed. Thirty years ago, the employment insurance program covered eight out of 10 people. Now it's four out of 10. So half as many people are covered. When it switched to eligibility criteria based on the number of hours worked, entire categories of people were excluded. I am thinking of women, immigrants and young people. I would even say that the program has an unfavourable bias against them.
Under the current program, before the pandemic, for example, a woman who worked 20 hours a week—they often work at part-time jobs—had to accumulate 35 weeks of work before qualifying for the program, while a man who worked 40 hours a week needed only 17.5 weeks of work. Yet both had paid about the same amount into the program.
In our view, a hybrid eligibility standard should be adopted that will take into account both the number of hours worked and the number of weeks employed. We suggest that the requirement be set at 420 hours worked or 12 weeks of insurable employment. We suggest that the income replacement rate be set at 60%, but the maximum insurable income must also be increased. Basically, we are asking that it be aligned with the Quebec parental insurance plan. If I'm not mistaken, it is currently around $83,500.
Under the current program, some people end up having to deal with 20%, 25% or 30% in income replacement, because the maximum is not high enough and the replacement rate is too low. I mentioned aviation, but it's also the case in the oil industry. When a person has a certain lifestyle, is used to spending their money in certain ways, and then overnight, because of bad luck or misfortune, they find themselves with 20% of their income, they are in trouble.
Thank you very much, Mr. Chair.
My thanks also to the witnesses. It is very interesting to hear the solutions they are proposing for a reform in the future. I hope that the reform will happen sooner rather than later.
You are right to say that the program has not been completely overhauled for at least 15 years. The eligibility criteria were already problematic well before the pandemic.
Let me assure you right away, that I will be bringing the debate on Bill to a close. The Bloc Québécois will do nothing to slow down the implementation of this project. Otherwise, workers' benefits will be interrupted. We could have done things differently, but life being the way it is, we agree to moving forward diligently.
Mr. Bolduc, I heard both what you were saying and the criteria you mentioned. I want to make sure that I fully understand your comment about the eligibility criteria. Let me give you an example. In Montreal, you must accumulate between 420 and 700 hours of work, depending on the unemployment rate in the region. That applies to employment insurance in each of the 62 economic regions. In addition, unemployment rates even differ on the same island, Prince Edward Island, that is.
Your proposal is to establish a basic criterion of 420 hours of work, plus a hybrid eligibility standard. In your opinion, would that address the issue whereby some people are deemed ineligible for employment insurance benefits because of the unemployment rate?
Yes, that's more or less it, I feel.
By establishing a hybrid eligibility standard of 420 hours worked, or 12 weeks of insurable employment, as well as basing it on which of the two is best for the recipients, I feel that we can indeed solve most of the problems.
In recent years, we have expended a huge amount of energy looking for a solution to the famous employment insurance black hole in the regions, particularly by establishing pilot projects.
The proposal would perhaps not solve everything, but I feel that it could be applied across the country and would solve many of the problems. It would probably mean that the need to have extension programs for workers would disappear. There would be many fewer of them and it would make things simpler and much easier.
Thank you so much, Mr. Chair.
My first question is for Monsieur Bolduc.
In response to the throne speech, your union described the gap between the unemployed and the benefit recipients as a scandal. I appreciated that because I have been criticizing the government for how it has allowed so many to fall through the cracks during the pandemic.
You also supported, for example, a national pharmacare program, and we know that Quebec already has a subsidized child care program. What reforms would you like to see to improve workers' access to EI benefits?
We want people to feel secure when they are working. They are participating in a mutual insurance fund. So we want the number of insurable weeks and the benefits to be increased, and we want things to be easy.
The health crisis has shown that the employment insurance program needs to be very flexible and easy to access. As I said earlier in my presentation, someone who has never used the employment insurance program may find it quite complex. In addition, there are long processing delays. As I said previously, even the measures that were put into place were not perfect, they were quick and they were done urgently. We could perhaps draw inspiration from them. Of course, there would be a little more of a firewall. However, we could use them as a model so that access to employment insurance is quicker and more flexible.
I think that those are basically the important factors, as well as increasing the benefits, the number of weeks of benefits, and the insurable payments.
Thank you so much. Especially as someone who started her career as an early childhood educator, I also support a national child care plan.
My next question is for Mr. Pursey.
Like you, I've been a big supporter of a guaranteed livable basic income. One reason I support that is that I am from Manitoba where we had the Mincome study under the direction of well-known economist Evelyn Forget, and we know that the sky didn't fall.
You talked about restructuring the tax system and, for example, going after offshore tax havens and the ultra-wealthy to pay for it. I want to commend you for that. I certainly agree with you. I think it's time to stop propping up corporations that don't need assistance at all.
With the CERB being rolled out we saw almost a makeshift guaranteed livable basic income. We know that even during the pandemic, many groups were still left behind, and that when CERB was replaced by EI, only 40% qualified.
How would instituting a guaranteed livable basic income program in Canada help eradicate poverty?
Thank you very much, Mr. Chair.
We certainly responded to the crisis by putting certain measures in place. It was important to do so, but we now have to focus on things ahead. That is the goal of this study.
Nine million workers found themselves out of a job because of the health crisis. The opposition parties rallied behind the government to provide assistance. However, although all those measures have been extended, they are temporary. If we want a long-term vision, we have to act now in order to propose something constructive, if I may use the word, for the workers.
I would first like to talk about seasonal work and the famous black hole. In seasonal industries like tourism, fishing and forestry, for example, the black hole represents the weeks during which workers have no income. In addition, the number of weeks of eligibility for employment insurance varies by region.
In order to achieve some reform, do we have to put an end to that problem once and for all?
My question goes to both witnesses, who can add comments if they wish.
If I may, I will make a quick comment.
We are currently trying to reform the employment insurance program. We have been asking for that for a long time and it has been needed for a long time. Certainly, let's take advantage of this program review to also focus on the black hole problem. We have to find solutions.
People must not be penalized because they have a seasonal job. In that type of job, there's a short period during which they can contribute to the employment insurance program and longer periods during which they are unemployed. This is typical of certain regions, not only in Quebec, but also all over Canada. We have to get on board and solve these issues, especially the black hole. We must not miss this opportunity.
Thank you, Chair, and I will follow up with you, Mr. Pursey.
You spoke about how we need to ensure that we also remove other barriers. You mentioned specifically pharmacare and child care, for example.
I say that because a Liberal member of Parliament just introduced Bill , which calls for a study. What my main concern with this bill is, in opposition to the guaranteed livable basic income motion 46 I put forward.... I was very clear in that motion that a guaranteed livable basic income must be in addition to current and future government programs and support. Subparagraph 3(3)(d)(i) in the bill is very concerning to me because it opens the door to, for example, replacing existing social programs. We know through studies that this could actually leave people further in poverty.
You mentioned that, especially in regard to women trying to get back to work. Could you expand on that?
We are in committee business. I'll remind you that we are in public, not in camera.
The first item of committee business we need to deal with, or one of the items we need to deal with is the report of the subcommittee on agenda and procedure. You have been provided with a report of the committee's deliberations for your consideration. I would like to point out a couple of things.
Since the committee met, some events have overtaken it, namely the availability of ministers. As you can see, the subcommittee report called for the ministers to appear on the mains today. That didn't happen, but two of them have indicated their availability for Thursday.
I think the rest of it does line up with our expectations. The only other piece of information I can provide to you is that the has agreed to appear on the 23rd.
The report is before you. I would ask you to use the raise hand function if someone wishes to move acceptance of the report with the changes I just set forward that would probably be in order.
The floor is open for discussion.
Ms. Dancho, please.
As you point out, the subcommittee report isn't accurate now. I would say that I was under the clear impression that Mr. Vaughan was going to be reaching out to committee members last week, and that did not happen. I just wanted to express my disappointment on that. It sort of makes it difficult to collaborate and to trust that what's being said is going to be done.
I would like to have a collaborative nature on this committee. I've been on two other committees now, and we managed to work together quite well. I would like to see that on this committee, but I did want to express my frustration of having been under the impression that we were going to be reached out to, and then the onus was ultimately on us to do that.
I would just ask that when commitments are made they be followed through on so that we can maintain goodwill, and then perhaps we won't have to deal with having a subcommittee report that's obviously not accurate come out at 5 p.m. the day before. I would just ask that committee members consider that.
The dates in the subcommittee report do not match, in fact. However, we must remember that those dates for ministers to appear had been determined based on their availability. The subcommittee has made recommendations, but the ministers have to come back to the committee. I would accept the second report as amended.
Ms. Dancho, you said that you sit on other committees and the work is done in harmony. I have been sitting on this committee since I was elected. The committee has to work with four ministers. Our work deals with issues of employment, human resources, persons with disabilities, and social development, which includes everything to do with housing. The committee has to work on a large range of studies, on very important matters.
I would like to emphasize that, since I started participating on the committee, our studies have always been conducted in harmony. I was just saying to some colleagues that, although we have to do a lot of studies, ethical rules are always followed in our work. I can confirm to you that harmony is part of the way in which we conduct ourselves, and I hope that it will continue to be so.
She has accepted that invitation, Mr. Dong.
Do we have consensus to adopt the report as amended?
I believe I see consensus, so there's no need for a standing vote. Thank you.
Is there any further business to come before the meeting?
Mr. Vaughan, is your hand up from last time or do you want the floor now?
Is there any further business to come before the meeting?
I'd like to introduce a motion right now.
In terms of this week, obviously, it's been a very dynamic week with Bill being in front of the House. We heard testimony from a number of witnesses today, and especially in the last number of meetings as well, about how urgent the need is to pass Bill C-24 at the present moment. We have a very short window of time for us to pass Bill C-24 in order to avoid the benefit cliff that is staring us in the face at this moment.
I have a motion that would allow us at this point to basically conduct the prestudy. Right now, Bill is still in front of the House. It has not been referred to the committee. This allows us the opportunity to start, potentially as early as this Thursday, the prestudy of Bill C-24 in anticipation of the fact that Bill C-24 would pass second reading in the House at some point this week. That is the motion. It would allow the committee to begin its study of Bill C-24 in anticipation of the fact that the House would pass Bill C-24 at second reading.
Here's the math on this. We have about 23,000 folks who will lose their EI support in the first week near the end of March when EI runs out. That is a deadline. We have three sitting days at the moment to make this work before our constituency week next week. At the same time, we know that the Senate is sitting next week, so what I propose is that we begin the prestudy on Thursday, hoping to get Bill studied. Hopefully, it gets passed in the House so that we can actually send it to the Senate at some point next week so that we can get Bill C-24 passed, get royal assent and prevent any interruption in EI support for those Canadians who are in danger of losing their EI support.
Mr. Chair, I do have a motion here that I'd like to read out, if that's okay.
There are a couple of things. I think we now understand where that mysterious third hour was on Thursday. It's disappointing that we just approved the subcommittee report. It's been a number of weeks since we met as a subcommittee and had plenty of time to discuss this very lengthy motion with committee members that perhaps all members could support.
I note we had a good discussion on one of Madam Chabot's motions about giving ample notice for translation and this all went out the window when there would have been ample time to provide that lengthy motion. I would ask that the motion be immediately emailed to everyone.
What I also found interesting is that not only did you not circulate the motion, Mr. Kusmierczyk, but my office connected with the minister's office today and this did not come at all. This is definitely springing it on the committee without any collaboration whatsoever, and that's very disappointing.
Last, Mr. Kusmierczyk, I will mention that after the bill briefing with the minister, I emailed you immediately with a specific question about this bill and you never got back to me. You said you would and you never did. I find it interesting that there's this urgency from your government, Mr. Kusmierczyk and members of this committee, and yet you didn't even get back to me on a very simple question that I emailed you about.
So which one is it? Is it politics or is it that you do genuinely care about the well-being of Canadians? It seems very unclear to me with the antics that are going on in this committee right now. It's very disappointing, considering Conservatives have said very clearly we support getting supports to Canadians, and yet the Liberal narrative to date has been that we've delayed and yet this bill should have been presented a very long time ago.
As we learned today, your government learned that there would be concerns with the limited 26 weeks of EI in early January, and yet it wasn't until the end of February that you presented this bill to opposition parties. Then our first opportunity to debate it was Monday and here we are it's Tuesday and your government is saying we're delaying it.
I also feel it's jumping the gun a little, but we don't know what our House leaders are going to negotiate and this bill could skip all stages this week. Who knows.
I'm quite disappointed with this non-collaborative nature of Liberal members on this committee today.
Thank you, Mr. Chair.
I'm sure from the opposition's side the timetable looks compressed. I will share that as a parliamentary secretary who has had to pull legislation through a department, through Finance and Treasury Board while respecting parliamentary privileges, that you can't talk about a bill until it's presented on the floor of Parliament. We are up against two timetables as opposed to the opposition, which is on the receiving end of whatever comes out of that process.
I hope the opposition doesn't see this as an antic. I think that was the word used to describe it. We have a significant challenge in front of us in supporting Canadians, and we have a significant responsibility to make sure those benefits aren't interrupted so people's lives are not put in harm's way. It is not easy to always land legislation on a particular day, a particular time and a particular schedule that the committee has set to deal with these issues.
COVID has not made it easier with Zoom calls and meetings. We are all familiar with the bandwidth challenges in staging committees and moving committees around. If we were all in Ottawa, there would have been a much different way of dealing with many of these things, but we would still have run up against not being able to talk about legislation before it's tabled in the House; otherwise, there would be a contempt charge filed against us so fast. You know how those things work, and we have to respect those parameters as best we can.
I assure you we are moving in good faith to move together, but the goal here is to help Canadians and get this legislation started. If the House leaders can come to an agreement on how to fast-track this bill, all the more power to them. But as the government we have to prepare for all eventualities. In good faith, that's exactly what we're doing and that's why the motion has been presented as we presented it.
We have a profound responsibility to address the challenges that are addressed in this bill, but also to deliver it to Canadians. I hope we can recognize that in this circumstance time is not our friend, but the opposition members still are our friends. Hopefully we're working together to get a positive result.
Thank you very much for that welcome. I'm glad to be here.
I want to start by saying that we certainly support the principle of trying to get to an early study of this bill, given the time constraints we find ourselves under. There is a little bit of frustration there, because I think these dates are not surprise dates or dates that came up suddenly. These are deadlines that have long been established. I think it's always preferable to get to work sooner on these things. Many of the income support proposals, certainly the legislative side of them, had this kind of eleventh hour aspect to them when they came to Parliament in the fall...and the prorogation that we all know about. I'm looking at Mr. Long. He sat in on some of the procedure and House affairs committee meetings where we discussed that in great detail.
I do think at a certain point it's incumbent on government to get a handle on these deadlines so that we're not always curtailing parliamentary process, but we will have to continue to do that in some way, shape or form in order to provide support to Canadians. It's not a choice that I think we should have to make. I do beseech the government to get its act together and bring things forward in a more timely way.
That said, I want to speak to some of the details of the proposal, because I think getting down to an early study is helpful. That could help expedite the process. I want to note that the bill was introduced, and we're now being asked to set a pretty rigid schedule for how it will proceed at committee before parties have even had an opportunity to meet in their normal Wednesday caucus meeting. I believe the bill was tabled at the last sitting Thursday, and we haven't had a sitting Wednesday yet. The deadline in the motion for proposed amendments is tomorrow at five o'clock. That seems to me to be pretty short.
I notice also that there are members in the House whose parties don't have a seat at this table who will find out, if the committee decides to pass this motion, either very late today or early tomorrow that they have less than a day to contact the legislative counsel and try to prepare any amendments. It seems to me that the amendment deadline given, when we don't know when the bill is going to come to the committee, is a little tight. I would like to try to make some room for a little more time to be able to consider potential amendments. That would be either by striking paragraph (e), which has the deadline, or by having a caveat that would say that people have to submit amendments essentially within a sitting day of the bill passing through the House.
I think there's some flexibility there. I don't want it to get in the way of making progress today in terms of getting the study under way. I think there should be some allowance made for the fact that there are members who may yet know nothing about this plan for the bill and who nevertheless will have an interest in the bill and will need time to prepare any suggestions that they want to make constructively to the committee.
First of all, I agree with all of you, although we have been made aware only verbally of the gist of the motion: that it is a pre-study of Bill . However, for your information, since I was mentioned by name, let me remind you that I had presented the committee with a routine motion that had the same objective, namely that motions should be introduced in writing and translated in both official languages. That motion was defeated. So you must not complain now that you didn't receive a motion in writing in both languages. My proposal was not accepted because you said that it would delay our work.
However, it is quite unusual to work in an ad hoc manner by doing a preliminary study of a bill that we have not yet received. Despite that, in this case, we know that the situation is urgent. I understand that we lost some time because the conditions were not ideal, but we really should have acted with more care and more foresight.
We were in a similar situation after the Speech from the Throne that was delivered when we came back from the prorogation. We should have adopted and extended the temporary measures in all urgency because some of them were going to come to an end. That happened in the House, not at the committee.
However, we could look further ahead this time. It is true that the bill was introduced yesterday, on Monday, March 8, but each party still had the time to make themselves aware of it. Some technical information sessions followed. We were therefore not completely in the dark on Monday morning.
I agree that we must look further ahead, but, at the same time, we have to consider the current situation. If nothing is done and we do not speed things up, thousands of workers will be penalized. Is that what we want? My answer is no, which is why I will be supporting this motion.
By garbage, I meant because it is literally going to go into the garbage, since it is not valid anymore. I'm just unclear on why Liberal members voted for this, but then put this motion forward, knowing that it would supersede what they just voted for, so again, not in good faith, very disappointing....
Again, I agree completely with Mr. Blaikie. Tomorrow is the first opportunity that opposition members get to discuss this with their caucus. For amendments, it is pretty critical that we have consultation with our caucus. It's pretty standard. Again, this just plays back to the fact that this bill was introduced so late, really putting opposition parties in a very tough spot to do their duty. I am just really unsure of why this collaboration is so important....
I would like to hear from Mr. Kusmierczyk, given that he presented this motion. Why is it that he did not respond to my question on why is it so important to him that we throw out what we just agreed to—what he just agreed to—and replace it with this new motion? Why didn't he respond to my question on this bill?
I absolutely do recognize some of the concerns that have been raised by the members, and I know that this is an unusual motion, an unusual request, but again, the situation is such that we are facing an urgent situation, and I'd like all of us, if possible, at this time, to really just focus on what is the important matter at hand here, which is proceeding at the committee here with this study.
In no way does it bias deliberations at caucus. In no way does it bias the outcome of deliberations in the House. This is separate. But again, in anticipation that there will be positive movement in the House, this allows us to begin our work and potentially to conclude the work here at committee so that it does not cause any delay in the eventual passing of this important legislation.
I just wanted to highlight that we are in this situation. There are Canadians who are counting on us to really focus in on this and do what we can to get this legislation passed, which is absolutely critical. This in no way biases what's taking place in the House, what's taking place at caucus. Those conversations will take place, but this allows us to anticipate and begin the work here at committee so that we can make sure that we have a timely passage of this bill, hopefully.