OTTAWA — The Trudeau government has been given an ambitious plan for closing several gaps in the social-safety net for ill and unemployed Canadians that includes creating a new program to help those whose employment insurance or sickness benefits are about to run out.
The plan is contained in a government-commissioned report and would represent a major step for a government that has previously tweaked parental and caregiver benefits, among other so-called special EI benefits, but has yet to touch the core of employment insurance — which experts say is in desperate need of reform.
Specifically, the report recommended the government close gaps in the social safety net by creating a new program to catch those who exhaust sickness benefits but don’t qualify for a public disability pension.
The program would also help jobseekers who exhaust regular EI benefits and could be headed for provincial welfare systems.
The ideas stood out to federal officials reviewing the report, which provided a road map to modernize and close gaps in the employment insurance system and was obtained by The Canadian Press through the access to information law.
Yet while the Liberals appeared to have listen to some of the report’s other recommendations, including changing the scope and value of a benefit for the working poor and pegging the value of the child benefit to inflation, those two big ideas have remained just that — ideas.
The November 2017 report to Social Development Minister Jean-Yves Duclos provided an analysis of gaps in income-support programs, which spans 61 programs in eight departments.
Those program provide money directly to individuals, excluding wage subsidies to employers, and non-refundable tax credits.
Untangling that web of complexity is no easy task because many programs are based on a 1970s’ view of the workforce, said Kate Bezanson, a social policy expert from Brock University.
Without any changes, she added, EI may soon become too inflexible “to respond to changing family circumstance, changing labour market circumstances, changing regional circumstances.”
One option outlined in the report was to build a program to help unemployed workers who don’t qualify for EI, particularly the growing cohort of “gig economy” workers, or those working-age adults likely to be unemployed for longer periods.
The author recommended a new income-tested benefit or a “jobseeker’s loan” accompanied by “intensive employment services.”
Another area of need was a program for those who exhaust the 15 weeks of EI sickness benefits, but who don’t qualify for Canada Pension Plan disability payments.
The report recommended a medium-term sickness benefit, or a change to CPP rules to recognize “partial disability” and a “move away from the ‘all-or-nothing’ nature” of the disability pension.
The author of the report, Sherri Torjman, former vice-president of the Caledon Institute of Social Policy, declined an interview request.
Building new federal income support programs would be an ambitious undertaking and require detailed discussions with provinces, said Donna Wood, an expert on the social safety net from the University of Victoria.
“These are not minor tweaks. These are big issues,” Wood said.
“To make any other big choices — these are called trade-offs and that’s why I really do think it’s time to have a broader conversation on what should this program look like and what are the options that we could consider.”
Duclos has been meeting stakeholders about the future of EI, which is part of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s direction to conduct a review of the system.
In an interview late last month, Duclos said stakeholders want any review to be broad and not rushed.
But there is little time to get one done with a federal election in one year, and Duclos suggested any further EI changes will have to be ones that could be done quickly.
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Jordan Press, The Canadian Press