Low-wage workers have considerably less access to employment insurance (EI) benefits than those with higher wages, a new report has found.

The study, conducted by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) and released Wednesday, used several indicators measuring EI coverage broken down by income level, and found that the poorest Canadians are the least eligible for benefits.

The report analyzed the share of people eligible for EI out of all unemployed Canadians, and found 28 per cent of those who earned $15 or less per hour — the report’s benchmark for a low wage — qualified for benefits in 2017.

This indicator typically hovers around 40 per cent for all unemployed Canadians, which includes workers who haven’t contributed to EI in recent years or those who quit without a cause, making them ineligible for the program.

For those who are eligible for EI — by either paying EI premiums or leaving their jobs for a reason acceptable to the program — the report found 68 per cent of unemployed low-wage workers received benefits in 2017, compared to 90 per cent who earned $15 or more hourly.

Another measure also found 45 per cent of unemployed low-wage workers who had paid EI premiums qualified for benefits, compared to the average rate of 67 per cent.

With political parties set to reveal their full election platforms ahead of this fall’s vote, the report’s author said the findings suggest Canada needs to reform its EI system.

“The government must turn its attention to the more structural flaws of the program,” said Ricardo Tranjan, senior researcher at CCPA. “The first one would be this clear mismatch between eligibility rules and the reality of low-wage work.”

A core pillar of Canada’s social welfare programs, EI provides benefits to those who lose their jobs through no fault of their own and are able to work and can’t find a job. Benefits are also available to those in seasonal industries, those who are sick, acting as a caregiver, and parents of newborns.

Social Development Minister Jean-Yves Duclos has made changes to the EI program, reducing the waiting period for benefits from two weeks to one, as well as providing more flexible benefits for women, parents and caregivers.

While EI began as a way to support lower-income Canadians in difficult times, Tranjan said current eligibility rules are tailored toward workers who have stable, full-time jobs that often pay higher.

Low-wage workers are largely employed in retail, accommodation and food services, which are characterized by a high rate of part-time work and shorter tenures. This can mean they can’t get enough hours to qualify for benefits.

“For them, it’s very hard to accumulate those hours within the required period of time, but they’re not doing anything wrong,” Tranjan said. “They’re being individually penalized for labour market conditions that are way beyond their control.”

This makes it harder for many people working low-wage jobs to qualify not only for EI but also for other work-related income supports, he added.

“If they don’t get EI support, what happens? They’re very unlikely to qualify for any other support, so now they’re at high risk of falling into poverty,” he said, adding that there’s also risk for those who earn just enough to not qualify for other forms of social assistance but are not eligible for EI.

The study also found workers who earned less than $30,000 in 2015 paid 1.8 per cent of their employment income to EI. Those who earned more paid, on average, 1.1 per cent of their earnings.

As well, the study noted women make up 59 per cent of low-wage workers, while 16 per cent of low-wage mothers who paid EI premiums in the past two years did not qualify for maternity or parental benefits.

Trajan’s report said replacing the current system of benefit requirements with a universal requirement of 420 hours worked would result in 6 per cent more unemployed Canadians becoming eligible for EI, with three in five of them being low-wage workers.

Allowing people who voluntarily leave their jobs — which would include those who had paid EI premiums — would also increase eligibility by 8 per cent. An earnings-based eligibility requirement for poorer Canadians, similar to that provided to fishery workers, could also further increase the number of low-wage workers qualified for income support.

“I trust Canadians want to live in a country with an inclusive economy,” Tranjan said.

Jolson Lim is an Ottawa-based reporter for iPolitics.