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As Liberals consider EI update, gig workers hope to qualify for social safety net

There is general agreement that the social safety net program created eight decades ago needs to be adapted to cover gig workers when they fall on hard times.
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Ryan G. Hinds poses for a portrait in Toronto, Monday, April 5, 2021. It's been a long year for the 42-year-old Toronto actor and cabaret performer, who has watched how a safety net for unemployed workers has failed to catch gig workers like Hinds.

Ryan G. Hinds longs for the days of walking through the halls of a theatre and seeing musicians warm up, stage managers chit-chatting and technicians sharing a piece of licorice before a show.

It's been a long year for the 42-year-old Toronto actor and cabaret performer, who has watched how a safety net for unemployed workers has failed to catch gig workers like Hinds.

The place of gig workers has become a key issue in ongoing deliberation on how the decades-old employment insurance system will be updated.

There is general agreement that the social safety net program created eight decades ago needs to be adapted to cover gig workers when they fall on hard times. 

Questions exist at the practical level, such as how to calculate premiums and benefits, in addition to policy concerns about determining when someone needs aid, given that the nature of gig employment includes ups and downs. 

"EI has to join the 21st century because to me, an EI that doesn't cover everybody isn't a functional or realistic or fair or useful EI," said Hinds, who uses the pronoun they.

The April 19 budget could signal where the government is heading, particularly as it lays out federal expectations for premiums paid by employers and employees, and benefits to be paid out, over the coming years. 

Nura Jabagi, an expert on the gig economy, said government policy will catch up with the new realities of employment, noting movement in Europe.

"There's this very antiquated thinking around employment that hasn't really caught up with what's going on," said Jabagi, a Concordia University Public Scholar who spent a decade in e-commerce.

"Historically, freelance work was sort of a niche thing, and it's becoming much more mainstream. And so we have to recognize these shifts and think about how we view employment."

The country’s gig economy comprised 1.7 million workers in 2016, a 70 per cent jump from a decade earlier, according to Statistics Canada. 

At the time, recent male immigrant workers were almost twice as likely as their Canadian-born counterparts to be part of the gig economy, and more women than men in the overall labour force were gig workers.

Last year, gig workers accounted for about one-tenth of all hours lost through the pandemic, a greater proportion than any preceding downturn. 

A briefing note to Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland said the loss of hours reflected the growth in the gig economy over the last decade. This group of workers "does not tend to lose their job the way that employees do," officials wrote in the note, a copy of which The Canadian Press obtained under the Access to Information Act.

Quebec musician Francois Plante was working for a television show at the onset of the pandemic and watched as performer after performer cancelled appearances because some had travelled to COVID-19 hot spots, or feared getting on planes.

Most of Plante's gigs were then called off and he was left worrying that the sector wouldn't return to what it was before the pandemic. 

Plante said he enrolled in urban-planning courses in case he needed a backup career, possibly outside the gig economy.

"I'm well-established … and I had a couple of online gigs, but for a lot of people, it's been really hard and a lot of them have already switched to another job," Plante said.

Jim Stanford, director of the Centre for Future Work, said precarious self-employment grew slightly during the initial months of the pandemic, and fell after July when economic conditions improved. 

Stanford suggested the pandemic may have initially driven some people to take up new gig-type jobs that don't normally qualify for EI.

"During the pandemic these workers had nothing to fall back on. That posed a threat to public health, as well as equity, because these people were compelled to keep working no matter what," Stanford said.

"It is urgent that the federal and provincial governments expand and reform existing income (support) and labour policies to make sure that gig workers have something to fall back on."

Jabagi said many ride-hailing service workers, like Uber drivers, have shifted to delivery services to avoid contact with people, but they haven't made up lost earnings with supply of drivers outpacing service demand.

She noted that gig workers on professional-services platforms who can work remotely have not seen a steep drop in their hours, reflecting similar trends in the broader economy.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 6, 2021.

Tara Deschamps and Jordan Press, The Canadian Press