COVID-19: The Widening Cracks in Canada’s Social Safety Net Have Implications for Retraining
By Alix J. Jansen
The COVID-19 pandemic is highlighting the cracks in Canada’s social safety net and revealing the various ways that social policies make it difficult for workforce development organizations to help those in need. Career development professionals do their best to help people navigate our changing labour market, but government policies can make it difficult for organizations to connect with people in need and help them retrain and find decent work.
In particular, it is deepening the inequalities that Canadians face when trying to navigate the job market that result from the ongoing link between eligibility for Employment Insurance and access to retraining programs.
People who have been shut out of full-time employment have long had access to sub-par benefits. Approximately 30 and 41% of Ontarians are actually eligible for EI (Bramwell, 2012, 402; Vosko, 2011, 33) and levels appear to be low throughout Canada. To be eligible for EI, a person must have worked sufficient hours in insurable employment and have not worked in at least seven days through no fault of their own – and be available for and actively seeking work (Employment and Social Development Canada, 2018).
Those working in non-standard employment relationships like contract-based work are excluded (though some can opt in and pay coverage premiums). This is particularly important considering given that misclassification of workers as contract workers rather than employees is a known problem.
People must also apply for and have received this support – a process that can be difficult and overwhelming and cause some people not to apply for supports they would be entitled to (Herd and Moynihan 2018).
Eligibility is also unevenly distributed across Ontarians: people aged 15-24, 55 and above, recent immigrants and rural residents are much less likely to be eligible and women are slightly less likely to be eligible than men – especially amongst self-employed workers. This means that Canada’ s welfare system exacerbates the inequalities in Canada’s labour market, where women, people of colour, and younger or older workers face discrimination and lower wages.
Contractors and gig workers are excluded and are only able to access much lower levels of income support provided by provincial and territorial social assistance packages. They are also excluded from being able to claim EI while pursuing higher education. Provincial assistance also comes with a smaller budget for short-term retraining and tends to serve populations who have even greater needs. In some provinces, EI-funded training services funded by Labour Market Development Agreements are made accessible to people who are not eligible for EI, but this should be standard. There is no need for workforce development policies to double down on the divide between those eligible for EI and those who have more patchy labour market histories – especially as the latter group likely has even higher needs to support to find decent work.
The Canada Emergency Response Benefit goes some way toward recognizing the inequality cemented in Canada’ s welfare system. But this payment is not permanent and it does not acknowledge the unequal access to support for retraining that stems from ineligibility for EI.
Canada’s training system needs to be decoupled from work history in order to effectively help Canada respond to the looming unemployment crisis that the COVID-19 Pandemic is causing. The current complex of federal, provincial, and municipal services is overly complex and can create confusion for users and providers (May, Sapotichne, and Workman 2006; Schneider and Ingram 1993; Jansen et al. 2019).
Ideally, all Canadians would be able to retrain in growing areas of the labour market like healthcare and tech while accessing income support, either through tertiary degrees or through shorter, targeted programs that link people with employers closely. Career development organizations do their best to help people struggle to secure work and the financial support they need to get by: it is time for Canada’s government to make their work easier by universalizing supports for people to retrain.
Alix Jansen is a PhD Candidate at the University of Toronto. She studies barriers to retraining for marginalized groups and is interviewing organizations and people seeking training to better understand these barriers. If you would like to be part of her research or have questions, contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bramwell, Allison. 2012. “Training Policy for the 21st Century: Decentralization and Workforce Development Programs for Unemployed Working Age Adults in Canada.” In Making EI Work: Research from the Mowat Centre Employment Insurance Task Force, edited by John Medow and Keith Banting. Queen’s Policy Study Series 89. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press.
Employment and Social Development Canada. 2018. “Section 1: Applying for Benefits.” Aem. 2018. https://www.canada.ca/en/employment-social-development/programs/ei/ei-list/reports/regular-benefits/apply.html#h2.2.
Herd, Pamela, and Donald P. Moynihan. 2018. Administrative Burden: Policymaking by Other Means. Russell Sage Foundation. https://www.russellsage.org/publications/administrative-burden.
Jansen, Alix J., Linda A. White, Elizabeth Dhuey, Daniel Foster, and Michal Perlman. 2019. “Training and Skills Development Policy Options for the Changing World of Work.” Canadian Public Policy 45 (4): 460–82. https://doi.org/10.3138/cpp.2019-024.
May, Peter J., Joshua Sapotichne, and Samuel Workman. 2006. “Policy Coherence and Policy Domains.” Policy Studies Journal 34 (3): 381–403. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1541-0072.2006.00178.x.
Schneider, Anne, and Helen Ingram. 1993. “Social Construction of Target Populations: Implications for Politics and Policy.” American Political Science Review 87 (2): 334–47. https://doi.org/10.2307/2939044.
Vosko, Leah F. 2011. “The Challenge of Expanding EI Coverage | The Mowat Centre.” Mowat Publication 23. Ontario: Mowat Centre. https://mowatcentre.ca/the-challenge-of-expanding-ei-coverage/.