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Coronavirus: Many not eligible for EI sickness benefits, experts say

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The federal government has announced changes to employment insurance as part of its billion-dollar strategy to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic, but there are calls for more support for those who may be unable to work.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced Wednesday that the one-week waiting period for EI sickness benefits will be lifted for those who are in quarantine or self-isolation, at a cost of $5 million.

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The government has also earmarked $12 million to beef up EI’s work-sharing program, which can supplement a worker’s income when employers have cut hours due to a downturn.

Since January, there have been more than 138 confirmed or probable cases of COVID-19 in seven provinces. Additional measures could be announced to assist those who need to take time off, federal Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough said in Question Period on Thursday.

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“We’re looking at means to help workers that do not qualify for EI,” she said in response to NDP MP Jack Harris. “We will make sure that it’s easier for workers to make strong public health choices to ensure that they do not have work and they can still pay their bills and support their families.”

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Ricardo Tranjan, a political economist and senior researcher with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, said the action taken this week was encouraging — “a good overall policy” — but he is concerned about those who may be left behind.

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“There is a large number of workers, especially low-wage workers, who will not be eligible (for) this kind of competition,” he said.

According to his research, 67 per cent of unemployed workers who contributed to EI were eligible for benefits in 2017.

Among Canadians earning $15/hour or less, only 45 per cent were eligible for EI in 2017.

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Employees need to work a minimum number of hours in a 52-week period to be eligible for EI benefits. To receive sickness benefits, workers need 600 hours — for regular EI it ranges from 420 to 700 hours, depending on the employment conditions in your area.

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The EI sick leave program provides up to 15 weeks’ financial assistance of up to $573 per week. Claimants need approval from a doctor or other medical professional in order to qualify.

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Andrew Jackson, Broadbent Institute’s senior policy advisor, said the government should look at relaxing that requirement temporarily since it means infected patients will have to go to doctors’ offices, potentially posing a risk to others.

And waiving the one-week waiting period for sickness benefits won’t mean recipients get paid faster, he explained, just that they will be eligible to receive compensation for their first week off.

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It used to be that you weren’t paid for the first week of benefits, sort of like a deductible on an insurance policy,” he said.

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He’s optimistic more support could be offered. As he noted in a blog post, the federal government expanded EI during the 2008 financial crisis.

“EI is an important tool we have at hand that can be used on a temporary basis as needed,” he said.

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Gillian Petit, a doctoral student in economics at the University of Calgary, said the EI measures don’t provide job protection for when an employee is ready to return to work. The minimum number of paid or unpaid sick days available to each worker is subject to provincial legislation, she said.

“People in B.C. don’t have regulation or legislation that protects them or that protects their job if they get sick and have to leave for two weeks, paid or unpaid,” she said.

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Petit, along with U of C professor Lindsay Tedds, have called for a universal paid sick-leave program that is independent of EI.

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In addition to addressing the situation of workers who may not be EI-eligible, they argued it could also have a public health impact.

“Such a program could replace some or all of a worker’s earnings while they self-isolate,” they wrote. “This would provide incentives to those who feel like they cannot afford to take work off but show signs of illness to take stay at home and slow the transmission of the virus.”