Canadian workforce unevenly protected from COVID-19

Details on EI eligibility and how to apply can be found online here. Government information on support for those who don’t qualify can be found here

In only a few short months, the COVID-19 virus has thrown the world into crisis, putting pressure on families, communities, national economies and their health care and social security systems. The uncertainty affects everyone, but it has been ramped up especially high for workers who are being asked to self-quarantine if they feel sick or have come into contact with someone who has been confirmed with the new coronavirus.

I’ve rapidly produced a new report looking at how well Canadians workers are placed to weather this storm.

For some, working from home or taking paid time off is not a problem. In 2019, 74% of Canada’s highest paid workers had their leave from work paid for by an employer. But for many, many others, this is not an option.

Only 38% of sick leave and 23% of family responsibility leave in Canada is paid. If they are lucky, lower-to-middle income workers will be able to use their paid vacation time in the event of quarantine, though of course this is not ideal. In contrast, only 14% of the leave taken by Canada’s lowest income workers was paid leave, vacation included, in 2019.

We can further break these numbers down by sector, gender, geography and job classification.

As you might expect, workers in certain industries more heavily exposed to infection are the least likely to be able to work from home and the least likely to have their leave paid for by an employer. Accommodation and food services, retail, and a broad category including janitors, temporary workers, tour operators and travel agencies, fall into this category, with only 19%, 37% and 32% of leave paid for respectively.

Most women in Canada work in the “5C” occupations: clerical, cleaning, catering, cashiering and care (e.g., health care, child care, long-term care). While clerical workers might be able to work from home, the other jobs are by nature in-person. In addition, three of these professions (care, catering and cleaning) are going to be on the frontlines of combatting the virus. Truck drivers, equipment operators and building trades workers, the largest male professions , aren’t as directly exposed to the virus as 5C female workers, but they also can’t do their jobs from home.

Employment insurance is not ready for COVID-19

Workers without much (or any) paid leave must turn to employment insurance for income in the event of quarantine or COVID-19-related shutdowns and layoffs. However, only 33% of unemployed women and 38% of unemployed men received EI benefits in 2018. For previously self-employed or part time workers it’s even worse, with only one in five receiving EI benefits.

The main reasons why someone would not receive EI, despite being unemployed, is that they have not worked recently (e.g., a parent returns to work after taking parental leave), they did not log enough hours to qualify (currently 600 hours in a year), or they are not paying EI premiums (often due to self-employment or gig economy work). Yet all are put under duress by the precarious economic situation caused by COVID-19.

Last week, the government announced it would eliminate the one-week waiting period for the EI sickness benefit (which can be accessed if in quarantine) and double the maximum work-sharing length where EI can substitute for missing shifts. These changes, while welcome, do not come close to plugging the huge gaps in access to EI benefits for the potentially tens, if not hundreds of thousands of workers who may need them during the coronavirus outbreak.

In my report, I recommend the government at least match the more extensive EI changes that were rolled out when the SARS crisis hit in 2003, and then go even further. The sick note requirement for accessing EI sick benefits should be removed and the definition of “quarantine” expanded to cover not only official quarantine, but self-quarantine and employer enforced quarantine. We should also create an emergency benefit for people who do not presently qualify for EI.

Furthermore, the EI work-sharing provision must be promoted to employers and employees much more proactively to encourage take-up. As recommended in the Alternative Federal Budget, we should also drop the number of hours to qualify for EI regular and sickness benefits, from the current 600 down to 360 hours. Finally, let’s set up a COVID-19 EI hotline and ensure that EI benefits drawn as a result of the virus don’t impact eligibility for other EI benefits in the future.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the need to improve paid leave for low and middle income Canadians who are employed and make our EI system more responsive and generous for those who are unemployed. The time to act is now.

David Macdonald is Senior Economist with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives’ national office. His report, COVID-19 and the Canadian Workforce, is available for download here.


  1. This is an excellent analysis, and no doubt one that has been thought through, largely, in advance of these Covid developments. Sadly, I imagine the powers that be will continue to ignore the wisdom of such forward thinking minds, though perhaps this pandemic will stir the pot otherwise!

      1. I recently returned from Orlando Florida the night before the border security officer tested positive from the virus. I am in self isolation but is it true that unemployment insurance will not cover me. My HR manager informed me that currently this is true.
        Nice situation to be in!
        Maybe I’m best to go into their office!

    1. I have a question not a comment. We live on PEIand my daughter graduated 6 months this early from high school and while in school was working part time at a hotel as chamber maid. Since she graduated early been working full time. She is 17 and now lost her employment cause of the virus. Does she qualify for the covid19 ei benefits

  2. this is a great analysis, but how does the employee apply to get this assistance. The website is not very clear

  3. I work a minimum wage job. My boss expects all of us to show up to work even thoughtwo people are sick and one person who just returned from an international trip is now being tested for Corona Virus. If I do not show up for work I would run the potential of losing my job AND not be able to pay my bills. If I show up for work I risk my health for minimum wage… This is not fair. Layoff should be Nationwide for both union and non-union employees.

  4. I do enjoy how you pointed out some of the missing supports for the Canadian work force. I do wonder what can be done for the home daycare my wife run. She is not able to operate during this pandemic.
    Is there anything being done to assist those that provide this service?
    Thank you ,

    1. I doubt there will be anything done for home daycares in particular. The issue that your wife is having is going to be the same issue everyone will be having in the coming weeks as their workplaces close, you want to work but you can’t because of the virus.

      1. David,
        Thank you for monitoring and providing as much information as possible. During this uncertain time all information is greatly appreciated.

    2. My employment insurance ran out in December and I have not yet found work – due to the pandemic my job search is now on hold. I am wondering how or if I would qualify for any of the financial support being distributed by the federal government.

  5. Could you provide some insight for Working Sharing EI due to COVID-19 for small businesses? I believe the entire economy is suffering but many small businesses are in jeopardy of closing permanently.

    1. The idea is that people drop down to part time and receive some EI, but they are still partially employed. The idea is to keep a businesses open, keep people employed, everyone takes a hit but its not a full blown layoff (which is otherwise what would happen). The issue at this point is that its application based, so a biz has to apply, it takes time. It could be much faster to get in and more proactive.

      1. Right now I am on parental ei benefit it’s almost finish this week .now covid-19 is in Toronto few cases happened ,so nobody giving work.and I have baby and baby’s eating is also closed so I can’t work too. now my husband income is very low and also I have baby so it’s very hard to do grocery,rent,paying whould. Should I do?

    2. Can I apply for EI immediately because my work place closed YMCA do to the covid 19 . They just laid us all off yesturday. And jave not gotten Record of employment sent to us yet.

      1. There is a 2 week waiting period for EI benefits. Many people do find work in that 2 week window in normal times, but these are not normal times! We’ll see whether this wait period is changed likely tomorrow.

        1. I work for a private dentist. Do I have to use my vacation time and sick days before applying for unemployment?

          1. Well to get EI, you have to be laid off, you can’t just quit. If you quit then no EI. To have been laid off, generally you’d use your sick and vacation days first as they’d be paid at your full salary. EI is only at 55% of your original salary.

      2. I live in BC Canada and am newly pregnant. my employer just laid me off due to the virus scare. I can apply for the covid ei but I am worried this will affect my maternity leave once I apply for it. I don’t know if it will or what to do. I tried to contact the government office but after six hours on hold I was still unable to contact anyone to answer this question.

      3. Our daycare is closing on Friday. And have no choice to go on ei to be able to provide for my son and I and rent and bills. If I take EI for the time being, will this affect the hours of EII will need when I go on maternity leave in August?? I will need my full maternity leave and can’t afford to split it with the weeks I need for my work to reopen.

        1. Can we apply for EI if we need to take work off because we have been left with no daycare options? If so what category does it fall under? I can’t find anything that relates to this on the EI website

      4. My parental leave just ended this past Saturday, I cannot go back to work at the moment however because of all the child care shut downs. My husband works more hours then I would, so it makes sense I look after our child. Since I haven’t worked this last year, will I qualify for anything the government is to be offering for relief funding?

    3. Hi David,
      Thanks for your detailed analysis. I work in a childcare which is close until April 6th. Am I eligible for EI . Please let me know.

    4. Is there going to be financial help for those that are self employed in the construction industry either as trades or labourers , due to jobs going to be put on hold because of covid-19. Being self employed we do not have the same benefits as those on a company payroll.

  6. My husband is self-employed and I recently left my job so I could focus on my health this year (I battled cancer in 2019 and have a yet-to-be diagnosed problem in my spine). What measures are in place for us?

    1. Depending on the self-employed nature of your husband, he could get EI, if he has been paying into it and becomes unemployed. However, like many self-employed folks, they can’t access EI because they don’t have enough hours. Hopefully he can keep working from home, although for many working class folks, that’s not an option. There will be another federal announcement today and I suspect that better EI provisions are coming. I’ll post about it after it comes out.

      1. I am a home daycare provider, which I did not paid for ei but paid CPP, what benifits would I get at this time. Am I eligible for any Support from the from the government because I had to closed my home daycare.

      2. So if your company is temporarily closed due to the virus, you don’t qualify for EI because you are still technically employed? Isn’t that most of the people who are effected by this? And when will they fix it?

      3. Hi there, as others I have been laid off as well from my job as a daycare worker.My concern is,as I just applied for regular e.i benefits to get the ball rolling,am I entitled to still recieve my 12 mth maternity leave which would be at the end of June? This just royally sucks for all and obviously out of our control.3 yrs employed FT.

  7. We own an escape room. Business that employs over 40 university students on a casual basis working 6-15 hours per week. As with other such entertainment businesses such as movie theaters, we are shutting our doors. Few of our employees will have 600 hours to qualify for EI.

    Is this something you see the federal government addressing?

    1. At present, nothing. Tomorrow, maybe something.

      Depending on where you are, it could be more hours than that. In most of the GTA regions presently its 700 hours. The EI hours thresholds work on a 3 month rolling average and so they won’t fully drop down until the end of June. So people laid off in June will see the full reductions in the thresholds but folks being laid off now won’t

      Tomorrow is the big announcement on how they’re going to change EI. I suspect a big drop in hours to get in is coming as is emergency sick leave benefits like were announced in Quebec this morning.

    2. Where do I apply for unemployment in Alberta if there is nobody in the office? Can I apply for unemployment online or by phone? thank you

  8. Do you think they will extend coverage for self employeed? my partner is a freelance videographer and all production and work is cancelled for the unforseeable future but he wouldnt qualify now for EI. It’s not possible for me to support us both on my paycheck. EI would be incredibly helpful for us

    1. You’re not alone. Alot of people are in the same predicament. At this point I think they’ll do something on self-employed, but we’ll know tomorrow. That’s when the full economic package is coming out.

      1. Hi I’m just wondering I work at hospital in food service and being pregnant due in a couple of weeks,but I don’t have the enough hours to start my sick leave or to get mat leave.
        Is there something that can be done?
        And if they decrease the hours required for regular EI.
        Can I apply for regular EI instead of Mat EI ?

  9. I’m still looking for information on assistance for self-employed individuals. Lot of talk about EI and loans for small business but not much else that I can find. Anyone have any luck?

  10. The 55% of our pay being offered is painful to say the least, our bills do not change at all, my rent doesn’t go down, utilities don’t go down everything that we pay for to live doesn’t change. Its going to be a real hardship as both my husband and I work in the customer service field, we are both affected by the company we work for closing on a temporary basis because of COVID-19. Do we have other options as we do not receive sick pay benefits.

  11. I work at a licensed daycare which has temporarily closed due to the covid virus and in a result we all got temporarily laid off. My question is do I apply for regular benefits or the sickness benefits in Canada?

  12. Good Evening David, I am coming off of maternity leave. I was working casually (while reporting) with the school-board from January 2020 and hoping to ease off of EI benefits as my claim comes to an end in 2 weeks and jump into full time work. However, the schools are now closed and I was laid off until further notice because of this pandemic. I was wondering if there are any benefits available for those coming off of maternity leave and whos jobs are effected by this virus

  13. What provisions are being made for those that are self employed ?? We have to close because of covid 19

  14. Hi there. My hours were cut back a bit due to the covid 19 outbreak. Is it possible to be compensated for those missing hours? I dont make alot and every penny is usually accounted for. Thank you

    1. Not at this point. If you’re not laid off then you can’t get EI. There is a worksharing program through EI that could let your employer sign up and you’d get EI payments while working to make up for lost hours, but the employer has to do it and it would take time.

  15. My daughter works full time in a day care that is shutting down for 2-3 weeks , She is also going to be on Maternity leave in July. How will EI benefits and waiting be affected. Her place of employment is saying if she takes EI now she won’t be eligible for maternity leave.

  16. Hi I am on maturity leave and due back end of this month and I am sick and have been in contact with people that got back from cruise I am still waiting on a call back from 811 to get checked I haven’t left house due to being very ill how am I sapose to return to work that may be shouting the doors and I have no sitter their fore no money I am so scared

  17. My daughter works full time in a day care that is shutting down for 2-3 weeks , She is also going to be on Maternity leave in July. How will EI benefits and waiting be affected. Her place of employment is saying if she takes EI now she won’t be eligible for maternity leave as she wouldn’t have enough hours between now and then. I believe they are wrong but can’t access anyone to get an answer.

  18. hi there I was asked if I will like to take a layoff to take care of my four children during the shut down of schools due to covid19, my employer has lay me off from yesterday to april 5 how to apply for ei would this be under regular benefits?? or sick benefit?

Comments are Closed.

Before commenting, please read our Comment Policy