Jeremie Dhavernas carries the weary, battle-ready look of someone slugging it out in a perpetual war.
In the fight against poverty, the Quebec community worker is enlisted to help people navigate the employment insurance system.
“It’s a very complicated program, even just getting through to get information about it,” he said at the office of Mouvement Action-Chomage de Montreal, translated as the Montreal unemployment action movement.
In the wake of General Motors’ announcement in November that it plans to shutter its Oshawa assembly plant this year — affecting nearly 3,000 unionized workers and staff — and an economy that shows signs of cooling, experts say Canadians would be wise to brush up on EI and stay alert to its limitations.
Typically, anyone who loses their job through no fault of their own — layoffs or work shortages, for example — is entitled to benefits.
Those benefits amount to 55 per cent of your weekly wage, up to a maximum takeaway of $562 per week. The cutoff point is a salary of $53,100, above which recipients receive the same amount regardless of income.
Benefits flow for between 14 and 45 weeks, depending on the number of hours worked in the past year and the regional unemployment rate. The minimum threshold for time worked varies by region and hinges on employment levels.
In Vancouver, where unemployment is below 6.1 per cent, an applicant needs to have worked 700 hours over the last year to be eligible. That amounts to more than four months of full-time work at eight hours a day.
Workers in eastern Nova Scotia, where unemployment sits north of 13 per cent, need only have laboured for 420 hours.
The most that any one recipient could reap in regular benefits is about $25,300 in high-unemployment regions and $21,350 in low-unemployment regions.
The application process begins at Canada’s employment insurance benefits page, which lists the personal information and employment details needed to file a request.
The earlier you start the better — even without a record of employment from your employer, which they are obliged to provide — since a filing delay of more than four weeks after your last day of work can cost you benefits, the government warns.
Employment and Social Development Canada said in an email that “the EI rules can be complicated and everyone’s situation is unique.”
“Service Canada agents undergo extensive training so that they can provide assistance to you, and ensure you receive all benefits to which you are entitled,” the department said.
Neil Cohen, executive director of the Community Unemployed Help Centre in Winnipeg, said many of the people he helps wind up waiting two or three months for a decision on their claims application.
“The program has really been gutted to a large extent,” he said, citing higher thresholds for hours worked since the early 1990s. “That’s a huge problem, particularly for part-time workers, contract workers — often women and marginalized communities.”
The appeals process can be exhausting as well, Cohen said.
The Harper government overhauled the system, paring down a tripartite appeals panel that had representation from labour, business and government to a single adjudicator.
Donna Wood, an adjunct professor in political science at the University of Victoria, called on the government to restore the Canada Employment Insurance Commission to a more independent status with more authority to adjust premiums.
“We’ve got a pretty meagre insurance program…It’s better than the United States for sure, but compared to most European countries, it’s pretty skimpy,” Wood said.
Most urgently, though, potential recipients should apply as soon as they can, and seek out the help of community organizations, she said.