MONTREAL -- The easing of Employment Insurance (EI) eligibility and emergency programs like the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) kept some money in the pockets of Canadians during the pandemic.

Now, the National Council of Unemployed Workers (NCUW) is calling on federal party leaders to make these changes permanent.

“The problem with EI right now is eligibility. The coverage is not where it needs to be, and also the severity of sanctions for people who are leaving their jobs or fired,” says NCUW representative Milan Bernard.

Self employed workers, who make up roughly 15 per cent of the workforce, were ineligible for EI pre-COVID.

The NCUW now wants them covered permanently, and wants it to be easier for seasonal and part time workers to access benefits as well.

“In regular times, before the pandemic, there were 64 different regional rates used to see if people are eligible and [to] also determine the length of [time they would] receive benefits,” continues Bernard.

Labour experts say the pandemic helped expose problems with EI caused largely by limits on eligibility introduced in the 90’s. The pandemic also exposed an increase in the gig economy and self-employed workers.

Chris Roberts, the Social and Economic Policy Director of the Canadian Labour Congress, says when the government was forced to create a flat rate benefit in response to the job crisis caused by COVID, it applied to a wide selection of workers.

“And that included the self-employed,” says Roberts.

Last spring, the Liberals announced their budget plan to begin consultations on long-term reforms to EI, and extended pandemic support programs through to the end of September — shortly after Canadians head to the polls.

Bernard says the council’s hope is that other parties will bring more ideas to the table.

“[These are] good first steps towards real EI that works for everyone, but they are temporary and fall short in 2022, so we are really looking for commitment for real EI that covers everyone.”

So far all major parties have committed to extending the EI benefit period and providing support for self-employed or gig workers in varying degree and scope.

With four weeks to go in the campaign, it’s likely to be a topic for debate.