An Employment Insurance system for the 21st century: Lesson 2, The future of work calls for better income insurance

The COVID pandemic has fast-forwarded many changes in the way employers manage, monitor, and motivate their employees. The future of work is here and will involve more insecurity for many workers. The Canadian federal government can offer better and more appropriate income insurance by responding with both quick and easy, and with more fundamental changes to the Employment Insurance program.

 

The 2020 Speech from the Throne boldly claims that “This pandemic has shown that Canada needs an [Employment Insurance] system for the 21st century, including for the self-employed and those in the gig economy.” That is a tall order, a major overhaul of a complicated program in the span of the next couple of months, with little or virtually no consultation of stakeholders or engagement of experts outside of the government.

Will Minister Qualtrough, her cabinet colleagues, and of course the Prime Minister, get it right?

After all the need for EI reform has long been recognized, with lessons learned well before the onset of COVID19, but always politically convenient to put off. What does the 21st century hold for us?

Well, we’ve seen a good deal during its first 20 years, and some big lessons are pretty clear.

I draw three lessons, and these should be used to judge what the government has in store. You can read about the first here: Big shocks matter and need a response in real time.  This post discusses the second and the reforms it calls for: Lesson 2 is “The future of work has arrived and needs better income insurance for all.”

 

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An Employment Insurance system for the 21st century: Lesson 1, Big shocks matter

Canadian workers and their families have been rocked by three major shocks in just barely more than a decade, and all three times the Employment Insurance program has been found wanting. What reforms do big shocks call for? A big shock is a big change, and so the eligibility for and generosity of Employment Insurance benefits should in some part be determined by real-time changes in employment, not just the level.

 

The 2020 Speech from the Throne boldly claims that “This pandemic has shown that Canada needs an [Employment Insurance] system for the 21st century, including for the self-employed and those in the gig economy.”

That is a tall order, a major overhaul of a complicated program in the span of the next couple of months, with little or virtually no consultation of stakeholders or engagement of experts outside of the government.

Will Minister Qualtrough, her cabinet colleagues, and of course the Prime Minister, get it right? After all the need for EI reform has long been recognized, with lessons learned well before the onset of COVID19, but always politically convenient to put off.

What does the 21st century hold for us? Well, we’ve seen a good deal during its first 20 years, and some big lessons are pretty clear. These should be used to judge what the government has in store. This post discusses the first of three lessons and the reforms they call for: Lesson 1, Big shocks matter and need a response in real time

Continue reading “An Employment Insurance system for the 21st century: Lesson 1, Big shocks matter”

Employment Insurance reform that promotes agency

Benefits for employee initiated time away from work should be delivered through individual accounts, and a new program for maternity and parental benefits should be started outside of Employment Insurance.

 

More than one out of every three dollars distributed through the Employment Insurance program are for so-called Special Benefits, those parts of the program associated with maternity and parental leave, with caregiving, and with sickness.

The fact that the COVID19 pandemic is a health crisis with important job market consequences has sharply exposed and widened gaps not just in EI’s coverage and delivery of job loss benefits, but also with these Special Benefits.

Constructive reform will require rationalization of coverage for demographic and family risks and should proceed in a way that recognizes both their collective and individual nature, with a delivery design that gives citizens agency in an incentive compatible way.

This can be best accomplished by delivering Special Benefits through individual accounts, while at the same time devising a new program for maternity and parental benefits outside Employment Insurance.

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Social Policy, Now: Next steps for income support and income insurance in Canada

Three next steps for social policy involve: 1. Maximizing auto-enrollment and just-in-time program delivery; 2. Offering full income support with engagement; and 3. Offering broad income and earnings insurance with agency. In this post I introduce the detailed discussion of these proposals that you can also download.

 

On March 24th, 2020 the Government of Canada Tabled Bill C-13, “An Act respecting certain measures in response to COVID-19,” in the House of Commons, and the next day the Bill received Royal Assent, unleashing the most extensive and quickest change to Canadian social policy in living memory, if not in the history of the country.

The Canada Emergency Response Benefit is the most notable part of the Bill, offering $2,000 of income support every four weeks to all working age Canadians who made at least $5,000 in the previous 12 months and lost their source of income due to the COVID-19 crisis.

Almost immediately the public policy discussion turned to “what’s next?” Certainly this was so in the short-term as the government and the public service became fully engaged in meeting the evolving needs of citizens and businesses in response to the most serious health and economic crises the country has experienced since World War II.

But increasingly, as the weeks and months passed, it was also so in the longer term: What’s next for the design of social policy in light of the needs and the gaps that the COVID-19 crisis has revealed?

This is the question I address in a detailed presentation that you can download.

In this post I introduce the issues and options for discussing the next steps for social policy, the word “Now” in the title having three meanings that guide this approach.

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The Canada Emergency Response Benefit, what now? Government policy as the economy re-opens should be rules-based

We have learned from past experience that public policy proceeds through two phases during major crises: first, as one influential economist has said, “whatever it takes”; then, “Oh my God, what have we done!”

The Canada Emergency Response Benefit represents the best of whatever-it-takes policy. The speed, the depth, and the sheer uncertainty of the duration and aftermath of the COVID19 crisis called for maximum flexibility in the making of public policy, and full discretion for leaders to respond quickly. This is equally the “In it altogether” phase. It motivates significant, widely available, and easy to get income support intended to avert a liquidity crisis and ensure the survival of many asset-poor households.

The CERB is a generous payment, minimally targeted, with an on-off eligibility rule that would normally create a significant work disincentive, a program totally appropriate for times when the standard rules of economic policy are flipped upside down. The work disincentives of this program are a feature, not a bug. For many there is no work to be had, while for others work should be avoided to maximize the physical distancing necessary to reduce the reproduction rate of the virus, and flatten the curve. Survival, not stimulus, is the watchword for policy.

But re-opening the economy in stages, according to risks of re-infection and flare-ups, makes clear that we are in-it-together only until we are not. And yet uncertainty continues to prevail: will the recovery be V, U, W, or L-shaped? At what point do temporary layoffs morph into permanent layoffs that lengthen spells of unemployment, and further depress consumer confidence?

In the “OMG, what have we done” phase, giving maximum flexibility and discretion to government may even add to uncertainty.

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Canada’s unemployment rate will likely double to 10%, and that’s an understatement

Normally, I don’t venture into to predicting month-to-month changes in the unemployment rate, but this month is an exception for two reasons. The changes are certainly going to go well beyond the statistical noise inherent in the Statistics Canada survey, so there is no chance that the picture will be clouded. And history really isn’t a guide to what is coming next (in the very short term), so sophisticated models based on past data don’t have a particular advantage. My bets are on an almost doubling of the Canadian unemployment rate between February and March, with even this being an understatement because the official survey preceded some of the more dramatic shutdowns that happened later in the month. I’m suggesting that we are even probably close to 15% right now.

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