Closing the gap between EI and welfare

Tiffany McDowell was thrilled to land a customer service position at an Oshawa technology firm last January, several months after her daughter’s first birthday. The job, which required no night work and was located on a bus route near her daughter’s babysitter, seemed like a perfect fit for the financially strapped single mom who had worked in a book store and a call centre before Alexandra was born. But her hopes of climbing out of poverty were dashed last July when IQT Solutions went bankrupt and McDowell discovered she didn’t have enough insurable hours to qualify for employment insurance. “It was a real blow to lose that job,” she says. “And without EI, I had no alternative but welfare.” McDowell, 25, is among a growing number of area workers who either aren’t covered by EI or don’t qualify and could benefit from a proposed “Jobseeker’s Loan” designed to bridge the gap between employment insurance and welfare, says social policy researcher Michael Mendelson. Last year, more than 700,000 unemployed Canadians were either not covered by EI or ineligible, he says. Across the GTA, only about one-quarter of unemployed workers received EI. Under Mendelson’s proposal, income-tested forgivable loans would be available in bi-weekly payments of almost $700 for six months. The loans would be repaid based on total earnings for the year the money was received — they would be completely forgivable for those with incomes below about $10,000 and fully repayable for those earning about $71,000. At about $51,000, recipients would have to repay half of the Jobseeker’s Loan. All adults looking for work would be eligible for the full loan of almost $9,000 every five years and it would could cost the federal government about $1 billion annually. “I hope people will explore it and think about it as an alternative to welfare, which is a very oppressive, paternalistic and stigmatizing program,” says Mendelson, who came up with the scheme with colleague Ken Battle as part of a larger review of EI released in November by the University of Toronto’s Mowat Centre. “It would fill a large hole in Canada’s income security system, at a reasonable cost,” he adds.

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