Tuesday, March 16th 2021 - Bill C-24 An Act to amend the Employment Insurance Act, the Canada Recovery Benefits Act and another Act in response to COVID-19 - Speech at Second Reading
Hon. Rose-May Poirier: Honourable senators, I rise today as the official critic of Bill C-24, An Act to amend the Employment Insurance Act (additional regular benefits), the Canada Recovery Benefits Act (restriction on eligibility) and another Act in response to COVID-19.
I will not go into much detail of the bill since the sponsor, Senator LaBoucane-Benson, has explained it thoroughly. Basically, Bill C-24 facilitates access to Employment Insurance by adding a temporary increase in the maximum number of weeks for which EI can and may be paid — to 50 weeks — for claimants whose benefit period starts during the period beginning on September 27, 2020, and ending on September 25, 2021. It also facilitates access for self-employed Canadians who are in need of EI benefits.
The second part of the bill is essentially there to correct a mistake made by the government. As has been the custom for this government during the COVID pandemic, too often benefit packages have been rushed through Parliament without proper oversight. I understand the need for urgency in certain situations, and our caucus understands that as well when we collaborate to ensure swift passage to get help to those in need as quickly as possible. For the bill currently in front of us, I feel it was different, since it was rushed in the fall following a prorogation of Parliament. It’s mind-boggling that the government did not prorogue once during its first mandate, but during the pandemic it saw it as a good time to prorogue for a month.
Honourable senators will recall that Bill C-4 was introduced in the House of Commons on September 29 and received swift passage in both houses, receiving Royal Assent on October 2. It started in the House of Commons on Tuesday and was signed into law by the then-Governor General before dinner on Friday, but it took the government until the end of February to introduce Bill C-24 to correct that mistake. Furthermore, second reading only happened more than a month after, on March 8, 2021. It’s disappointing that the government waited months before fixing their loophole in the Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit and to provide extra benefits through EI. Seeing them drag their feet on issues that are essential for Canadians in a time of socio-economic crisis is a case of failed leadership.
The issue with these loopholes being fixed and who is eligible for which benefit, how to apply, how long, et cetera, is that it sends mixed messages to Canadians in need. Allow me, honourable senators, to put into context what I have experienced in my office, and I assume has been experienced in other offices as well. We have received so many requests and questions from concerned Canadians on the benefits. The lack of clarity, the flip-flops, the misdirection and mixed messages from the government were difficult to grasp and confusing for Canadians.
Allow me to list the programs: the Canada Recovery Benefit, the CRB; the Canada Recovery Caregiving Benefit, the CRCB; the Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit, the CRSB; the Canada Emergency Recovery Benefit, the CERB; and the Canada Emergency Student Benefit, the CESB. On top of that, you have the CEWS and the CERS for businesses in need of assistance. Finally, you have the EI program.
Looking at these programs — the CRB, CRCB, CRSB, CERB, CESB, CEWS and CERS — where would a person go to begin to apply for help? The eligibility criteria change every day. One day you’re on EI, the next one carries you to the CERB, and then back to EI. For a lot of Canadians, it was their first time turning to government programs for support, and it must have been an even more difficult experience to get the answers and support they needed.
Not only were they bombarded with messages from the federal government, they had to follow provincial norms and programs as well. Each province had their respective emergency act in place, with different colour-coded levels of restriction. It also offered its own benefit programs to businesses and individuals. So when a Canadian was looking for help to make ends meet, he might have had over half a dozen programs to look at and figure out which one to qualify for. I hope a review will be done on the government’s response to COVID-19 with special attention given to the importance of government messaging being clear, direct and having simpler benefit programs for Canadians looking for assistance in future emergency situations.
At the end of the day, what we have done here in Parliament over the last year has had a direct impact on millions of Canadians who lost their income entirely or partially. As we see the number of cases and deaths finally starting to fall across the country, it’s important not to forget about the millions of Canadians who are still feeling the consequences of COVID-19.
According to the Labour Force Survey for January 2021, unemployment rose to 9.4% in January 2021, with 18,272,000 Canadians employed, compared to January 2020, when the unemployment rate was 5.5%, with 19,159,000 Canadians employed. It accounts for the roughly 1 million Canadians whose ability to put food on the table for their families has been greatly hindered by COVID-19. Moreover, according to the Labour Force Survey from January 2021:
The number of long-term unemployed (people who have been looking for work or who have been on temporary layoff for 27 weeks or more) remained at a record high (512,000).
That is roughly half of the unemployed force from last year who have been looking for work or who have been temporarily laid off over 27 weeks. Let’s not forget that this doesn’t take into account the people who have seen a reduction in their income due to work shortage, fewer hours, or a business having to lower salaries to make ends meet. It goes beyond the numbers.
Our youth need to play a big role in our economic rebound and the government needs to be proactive in helping them out before it’s too late. An RBC study found that across every province and major city in Canada, youth aged 14 to 29 are significantly less confident when it comes to their job prospects and how prepared they are to find work. The government will need to act fast and swiftly to boost the economy, the confidence and the job opportunities for our youth.
As I was getting ready for my speech, the Labour Force Survey for February was released. It’s only fair to share that the new unemployment rate for that month is 8.2%, which is down from 9.4%. It’s good news to see the numbers go down, but Statistics Canada offers a warning that we are not out of the woods yet. The 1.2% shift was mainly attributed to Quebec and Ontario, who reopened their economy last month in retail and restaurant services. Compared to 12 months ago, there is still a 599,000-job gap where fewer people were employed and 406,000 more people working less than half their usual hours.
The new Labour Force Survey for February offered an update for youth:
The unemployment rate for youth fell 2.6 percentage points to 17.1% in February, similar to the recent low in November 2020 but still higher than a year earlier (10.4%). The unemployment rate fell both among young men (-3.2 percentage points to 16.1%) and young women (-2.0 percentage points to 18.1%). The unemployment rate is typically higher for young men than young women; however, this trend was reversed as a result of the March/April 2020 and January/February 2021 lockdowns, as half of young women are employed in accommodation and food services, and retail trade—industries among the most affected by pandemic restrictions.
I offer these quick thoughts, honourable senators, because I’m concerned the government is starting to take its eye off the ball. It sees the potential ending of a pandemic approaching with a slow vaccine rollout, and quite frankly, our economic recovery must be done with more vigour and proactivity.
With Bill C-24, it shows the government is taking its foot off the gas a little at a time, where it needs to be focussed on what matters right now, which is protecting Canadians from COVID-19 and ensuring the confinement Canadians have done in the last year doesn’t impact their job opportunities longer than needed.
Our businesses are ready to help and play a role in reducing the spread of COVID-19. Business groups such as the Canadian Chamber of Commerce delivered a message to the Prime Minister with a letter saying they want to be part of the broader solution to manage the pandemic and to return to normal conditions more quickly.
Bill C-24 also amends the Employment Insurance Act — the EI — to facilitate its access for self-employed Canadians who have seen a reduction in their income. The pandemic has also shown us how a safety net such as EI needs to be adapted to the 21st-century economy. The current EI parameters are made for an economy in a time where having the same full-time, nine-to-five job at the same company for 25 years was the norm. But nowadays, with the new gig economy, gig workers are not employed on a long-term basis by a single firm. According to a Statistics Canada study based on tax data, the share of gig workers among all workers rose from 5.5% in 2005 to 8.2% in 2016 just on the digital economy; that is, for example, Uber drivers, renting out your home through Airbnb, et cetera, into the 5.5% total Canadian economic activity.
All along, while the Canadian people were adapting to the new realities, the EI program was still stuck in the middle of the 20th century. Too many people were falling between the cracks of the EI safety net.
The major flaws of the EI programs were exposed with the pandemic. It showed us it was not suited to adapt to take on an important number of Canadians who were in need and it’s not easily adaptable. The government had to constantly change the eligibility requirement and the number of weeks paid to help Canadians in need. It had to do so again with Bill C-24 with self-employed Canadians, like it did for seasonal workers in May, and like it did for mothers on maternity leave in the fall through regulations.
During the pandemic, time was of the essence, and the out-of-date EI system made it slower for Canadians to get the money they needed. Once the other programs were put in place, they were not streamlined between departments, causing delays and grief for Canadians.
We had an example of this with an Ontario resident who had a hard time navigating changes to emergency benefits throughout COVID-19. A mother of two, she had been working in retail and lost her job last spring due to the pandemic. She was first put on CERB, then switched to EI in September, and since she is a part-time worker, half of her salary is clawed back. In January, she was the only one available to care for her five-year-old daughter when schools closed in London, so therefore she declared on her EI statement that she was not available for work. That meant she was no longer eligible for EI because it requires applicants to be available to work.
She then turned to the new CRSB, but was told she did not qualify due to having an open EI claim. We are in March, and she still hasn’t received money for those two weeks in January. I would quote the mother from the news story.
There’s so many people that fall into these situations where, like myself, to go two weeks and not have any (money) come in. That’s scary. And for a lot of people, that could be their rent, their mortgage and food on the table.
I am aware that the government has promised to reform the EI system, but as a past member of the Standing Senate Committee on Official Languages, I have learned that despite what this government promises, it doesn’t mean it will deliver. We have heard them repeat often how they would modernize the Official Languages Act, and two years after the Senate committee published its report on the reform, we’re still waiting for the bill.
To conclude, honourable senators, we support Bill C-24 as a great reminder of the best way to avoid mistakes and loopholes and allow Parliament the right amount of time to do the proper oversight of its spending. We have great committees who do great work on behalf of Canadians. Let them do the proper oversight of the government bill, because with proper oversight, we wouldn’t be here fixing mistakes months later.
That’s why I end with a plead to the government to read the great report released last summer from the Standing Senate Committee on National Finance, COVID- 19: Relief in times of crisis, chaired by Senator Mockler, and to give particular attention and consideration to recommendation No. 16:
That it is time to return to traditional procedures for approval by Parliament of government spending in order to provide appropriate oversight of government expenditures.
Thank you, honourable senators..
Hon. Senators: Hear, hear.