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The pandemic exposed huge gaps in EI — turns out the parental leave system has many of the same problems

The pandemic exposed huge gaps in EI — turns out the parental leave system has many of the same problems
Business
The self-employed, Toronto-based owner of an accounting firm had everything laid out: she was going to voluntarily pay into the Employment Insurance program throughout 2020 so she could access parental benefits come 2021, when she started a family.

Then COVID-19 happened.

“I had a whole plan … and then that was sort of cut right at the knees in March,” said Cunningham.

When the pandemic hit, Cunningham lost about 90 per cent of her client base. Around the same time, she discovered she was pregnant.

Instead of getting parental leave, Cunningham had to dip into her savings before the baby was born at the same time she refocused her business.

“My entire pregnancy I stressed about money,” she said.

Now, with her baby boy just weeks old, Cunningham is giving herself as much leave as she can; she’s taking a few months off of some clients, while continuing to work with others. She even worked the day after her child was born.

If she were eligible for parental benefits, Cunningham would have taken a full leave. But that’s not an option.

“It’s scary for me, especially as a freelancer. I just want to see some residual money coming in.”

Cunningham worked at an accounting firm before starting her own business, but the years she spent paying into the EI program don’t count toward her parental leave because she’s been self-employed for two years.

She says the EI program needs to change to accommodate the growing number of freelancers, gig workers, entrepreneurs, and self-employed.

“Essentially, we’ve been left out,” she said.

After COVID-19 made it clear the EI system needed to change, the federal government hinted it would work toward bringing the program up to speed. The program is currently being bolstered by temporary changes meant to include more people affected by the pandemic, reducing the number of hours needed to qualify and boosting the wage replacement rate.

In the long run, experts say parental benefits need to be easier to access, offer higher rates, and incentivize both parents to take leave.

Dana Wray, a PhD student at the University of Toronto studying social, work and family policies, said COVID-19 has exposed existing inequalities in the federal parental benefit system, deployed under EI.

Just like EI itself, it’s contingent on employment — a specific kind of employment, meaning people with precarious, low-income, or contract jobs often don’t qualify.

“It ends up just furthering some of the inequalities based on gender, social class or race, or intersections of those,” she said.

In the longer term, this will make it even harder for women, especially women of colour, to re-enter the job market, Wray said.

Canada Research Chair in gender, work and care Andrea Doucet said before the pandemic, around 35 per cent of women in Canada outside Quebec were unable to access parental leave (she noted this data excludes the territories and First Nations, a gap she said needs to be addressed).
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