COVID-19 revealed that people need at least $500 per week in income to survive. Together, we successfully pushed to increase the Canada Emergency Response Benefit and Recovery Benefits to $500 per week. We also campaigned to ensure the Employment Insurance (EI) system also delivered at least $500 in weekly income support, since we knew nobody earning the minimum wage could survive on 55% of their previous income. Although these and other important changes to EI were only temporary, we continue to fight to make these temporary changes permanent.
Unfortunately, the Federal government cut the weekly income support under the Canada Recovery Benefit (CRB) last month and the minimum weekly EI benefits will be reduced soon.
And though the fourth wave of the pandemic has hit just ahead of flu season, the time period to apply for COVID income support was extended by only one month. With a federal election called for September 20, this is the time for workers to demand all candidates support at least $500 per week of income for all, and this support should remain in place for as long as workers need.
The $800 cut to monthly CRB left thousands with only $1,200 per month for rent and bills. While CRB has been extended from 50 weeks to 54 weeks, the 40% cut in income makes it much harder for the over 700,000 people who rely on it. Cutting income support is a way of driving workers into dangerous and low-wage work. As a recent Toronto Star article notes, this move will supply employers “with still more desperate workers willing to work for any wage” . The obvious way for employers to fill jobs is to raise wages, offer decent hours and act on the demands of our Justice for Workers campaign.
This cut ignores the fact that the pandemic is not over. Uncertainty surrounds the Delta variant and the fourth wave. We are starting to see workplace outbreaks in Toronto again, and many sectors are still operating at reduced capacity or are closed.
Christine, who is an usher at three municipally-owned theatres, lost all of her jobs when the pandemic hit and says she’s grateful that adequate income supports were available. As a casual employee, she worked less than 24 hours a week at each of her jobs, was paid minimum wage without benefits, and was unionized at only one workplace. “About two or three weeks into the pandemic, my union sent out an email saying that for the first time in its 100+ year history, 100% of its members were unemployed with no return dates,” she told us. “I had to get some support! I’ve got bills to pay! I took CERB and when that ended, CRB.” Since benefits were not reduced at that time, Christine says, “$2,000 was a little tight, but I managed! $1,200 would have been impossible – rent, utilities, transit, phone, internet, renter’s insurance, groceries – it’s not enough. I’d have been about $150 to $200 short.” For many workers taking care of family members or paying medical bills, $1,200 would be even more devastating.
Christine was fortunate to find work at a vaccination clinic, but that clinic recently closed. Only one of the theatres that employs her plans to partially reopen in September. Without knowing how many shifts she’ll be working and when she’ll be called back to her other two jobs, Christine isn’t sure the reduced income support will be enough if she needs it. It’s possible that business won’t be back to normal in her sector until September 2022. In the meantime, all workers like Christine will need enough income support to survive on!
Before calling an election, the Federal government announced that the application period for all Recovery Benefits has been extended until October 23, 2021. The Canada Recovery Caregiving Benefit (CRCB) and Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit (CRSB) still offer $500 per week. CRCB still offers up to 42 weeks of benefits per household and CRSB offers up to 4 weeks. But these benefits will be needed far beyond October 23.
That benefits had to be created specifically for COVID shows the inadequacy of the EI system. Last week, the federal government began consultations on how EI can be improved. However, the federal election announced on August 15 means consultations and all government business will be put on hold. During the election campaign, we can raise our voices to demand that candidates support permanent improvements to the EI system. All workers should have access to EI, including misclassified gig workers and migrants, and recipients should receive at least $500 per week.
For now, here are some of the key changes to EI affecting workers:
- On September 26, 2021, the $500 minimum weekly income for EI will be reduced to $300 per week (similar to CRB). New claimants between September 26, 2021 and November 20, 2021 will only receive a base rate of $1,200 per month instead of $2,000.
- From September 26, 2021 until at least September 25, 2022, the duration of Regular EI will no longer be 50 weeks in all regions. The number of weeks you receive benefits will again be based on your accumulated work hours and the regional unemployment rate.
- To be eligible for Regular EI and Special EI benefits such as parental leave, workers currently need only 120 hours of work. But on September 26, workers will need 420 work hours to qualify.
- All temporary EI measures will revert back to the pre-COVID EI system after September 25, 2022 – unless we win permanent improvements before then.
If you need support finding out if you are eligible and how to apply for any of these income supports, please call the Workers’ Action Centre at 416-531-0778.