Insurance principles offer three practical reforms for financing Employment Insurance

The Canadian federal government has promised to modernize Employment Insurance for the 21st century and has been holding consultations to engage stakeholders and others. These have been full of suggestions for the expansion of coverage and benefits. But when it comes to financing the program the debate has been framed in terms of how to finance these suggestions, without a realization that the nature and structure of contributions are themselves also a part of the “modernization” of Employment Insurance.

There is a clear need to think not just about how to finance benefits by adjustments and tweaks to the existing contribution structure, but rather to also think about that structure and how it can itself be reformed to enhance program objectives.

The need for better insurance offers a guiding principle for reform and practical reforms

The challenges the Employment Insurance has faced during what is almost the first quarter of the 21st century, if not for even a decade longer back to the early 1990s, are calling for better insurance, and these imply changes not just to the structure of benefits but also to contributions.

The most fundamental role of Employment Insurance is to provide workers with income insurance during periods of job disruption, and it is the insurance part of Employment Insurance that needs upgrading and modernization. As a result, a guiding insurance principle for “Modernization” should be to align the structure of contributions to the underlying nature and causes of the risks being covered.

This implies that contributions should be structured to most efficiently and equitably to cover:

  • Job risks associated with employer decisions to manage human resources, whether through changes in hours, layoffs, or even business closures;
  • Family risks associated with household decisions about respite, care-giving, and skills development; and
  • Collective risks associated with the interconnectedness and uncertainty of a global economy, but also with social choices, the costs of which are often disproportionately shouldered by the unemployed.

Aligning contributions with these risks, with the nature and causes of unemployment, implies three straightforward and feasible reforms.

  1. Employer contributions should be used to finance Regular Benefits, and employee contributions should finance “Special” Benefits and some fraction of Part II benefits associated with skills development. The shares of total program expenditures of each of these benefits implies that the ratio of employer to employee contributions should rise from $1.40 for every dollar of employee contribution to about $1.90. But these contribution rates should also evolve gradually over time by being based on the ratio of program expenditures on Regular Benefits to those on Special Benefits. If Special Benefits become a larger share of total Employment Insurance outlays, the employee contribution share should rise accordingly.
  2. Contribution rates should be relatively stable and set at a level to finance benefits associated with the underlying trend unemployment rate, evolving gradually in a way that roughly corresponds to the evolution of frictional and structural unemployment. An average of monthly unemployment rates over the past seven years, a horizon consistent with the current funding rules, would currently imply a trend unemployment rate of 7%. An average over the past five years, consistent with the usual mandate of a newly elected government, would imply the same. This is only slightly higher than the 6.5% that both rules implied in January 2020, before the onset of the pandemic, and suggests relatively constant rates even in the aftermath of a shock as big as the pandemic.
  3. The program should be based on tripartite funding with Federal government contributions from the Consolidated Revenue Fund covering the expansion of benefits needed in the face of big unexpected shocks like business cycle downturns and broad-based regional shocks that take the unemployment rate above its trend, or to compensate for the trade-offs made in social choices like fighting inflation. At the same time, the Federal balance sheet should be strengthened by the surpluses associated with lower than trend unemployment rates.

[ This post is based upon a presentation I made to a workshop organized by the Institute for Research on Public Policy on June 29th, 2022. My presentation was called “Principles and Practicalities in aligning Employment Insurance Benefits and Contributions”.

You can download and read the full paper that summarizes the presentation, and upon which this post is based. You can also read short summaries published by the CD Howe Institute on October 11th, 2002 as “Insurance Principles Make the Case for Stable Contribution Rates as a Part of Employment Insurance Modernization,” and on October 12th, 2022 as “Reality-based Employer EI Contributions.”

A version of this post was also published by the CD Howe Institute on October 13th, 2022 as “Insurance principles offer three practical reforms for financing EI.” ]


Employment Insurance for the future of work, right now

This posts offers my written statement for a presentation made on February 23rd to the Canadian House of Commons, Standing Committee on Human Resources, Skills and Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities as a part of its Review of the Employment Insurance Program.


Employment Insurance has been found wanting.

It has been found wanting for decades.

It was slow to respond to the Great Recession of 2018, and left many Canadians, particularly in central Canada, with poor and inadequate income insurance.

It was slow to respond to the collapse of commodity prices in 2014 that devasted the jobs and livelihoods of many Canadians, particularly in Alberta, leaving them with poor and inadequate income insurance.

And of course, it was slow to respond, indeed stalled almost completely, to the COVID pandemic, leaving all working Canadians, almost without regard to their station in life, with poor and inadequate income insurance.

But many Canadians have long been shut out or at best under-served by this crucial pillar of our social insurance system, a program that is solely under federal responsibility.

Workers in the arts and culture industries; self-employed workers; lower paid workers with intermittent jobs; quitters, new labour market entrants, the young as well as those in mid or late careers.

Employment Insurance has been found wanting, many Canadians have experienced that for decades, and now is well beyond the time to do something about it.

The government can proceed immediately with a series of important changes that are well within its administrative capacity, but it also must proceed with an eye to more fundamental changes in the near term that may require more consultation.

But before I outline these immediate-term and near-term possibilities, let me tell you what Canadians don’t need more of.

They don’t need more platitudes about getting a better education, getting more training. The EI program already transfers almost $3 billion to the provinces for programs of this sort, some are effective, some less so.

But the government doesn’t need to spend more money on training through EI, and putting more responsibility on individuals to adjust to the storms of a turbulent job market.

Canadians, in the first instance, need better and more complete income insurance. My suggestions are directed to this need.

Continue reading “Employment Insurance for the future of work, right now”

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.”


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

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.

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