EI short-changes women, study suggests

Nov 21, 2007 06:01 PM


Hundreds of women are seen in this Reuters file photo marching through the streets of Vancouver to mark International Women's Day. A new study suggests the Employment Insurance system discriminates against women.


Canadian women are being unfairly short-changed by the country's Employment Insurance system, which was made more restrictive a decade ago and now boasts a multibillion-dollar surplus, a study concludes.

The study for the left-leaning Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, to be released today, finds the qualification requirements for EI have left many women who lose their jobs out of pocket despite having paid their fair share of premiums.

In fact, the study finds, as many as two in three working women who pay into EI don't receive a penny in benefits if they lose their jobs.

"Because so few of them qualify, they're subsidizing the benefits for men, who are more likely to qualify, and that doesn't seem fair," study co-author Monica Townson said in an interview.

Statistics Canada data show that 40 per cent of unemployed men received EI benefits in 2004. For women, the figure was only 32 per cent.

"The rules seem to be based on the standard male job of full time, full year," Townson said.

"A lot of women are in non-standard jobs part time, temporary work, contract work and that kind of thing so it's very difficult for them to get the hours in a lot of those cases."

Under the old system, qualification for what was then Unemployment Insurance was based on 20 weeks of 15 hours a week or 300 hours. Battling a huge deficit, the federal government raised the qualification in 1996 to an average of 35 hours of work a week for 20 weeks or 700 hours.

Ottawa settled on the 35-hour qualification because it was somewhere between the 39 hours a week the average man worked and the 30 hours a week the average women worked, Townson said.

"In many cases, the hours required to qualify doubled, or, in some cases, tripled," Townson said. "That's where it all started."

However, because of their child-rearing and family responsibility roles, women are required to take prolonged periods of time out of the work force, something men usually don't have to do.

When a woman does return to work after a few years, she is required to re-qualify for EI from scratch by working at least 910 hours in the most recent 52-week period.

"It doesn't take account of the fact that women have to be out of the workforce for periods to look after their children and that may make it harder for them to qualify for benefits," Townson said.

"(Yet) many of those women coming back into the work force actually have a long-term attachment to paid employment."

Even when women work full-time jobs, they tend to work fewer hours than men. And when they work overtime, they are less likely to be paid, and so the earnings don't translate into enhanced EI benefits.

The report recommends taking a longer-term view to determine eligibility for EI benefits, say by setting a qualification threshold of 360 hours either within the last 52 weeks before unemployment, or an average of at least 360 work hours in three of the past five years.

"A longer-term perspective would help women in the patterns that (women) have of paid and unpaid work," Townson said.

The report comes at a time when the EI program is running a surplus of about $2 billion a year, and is currently in the black by about $51 billion.

"They've made it so restrictive that people are still paying in but very few are getting benefits," said Townson.