Unprecedented numbers of Canadians are applying for Employment Insurance (“EI”) benefits due to an interruption in earnings caused by layoff, sickness or quarantine resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. In this article, we explore some of the most common questions arising in relation to EI benefits at this time.
What changes have been announced to the EI benefits program in response to COVID-19?
Regular EI benefits
Employees who have been laid off by their employers as a result of business slowdowns or mandatory closures may be eligible to receive Regular EI benefits. Eligible employees may be entitled to receive a maximum of $573 per week for up to 45 weeks. To date, the federal government has not announced any changes to its Regular EI benefits program in response to COVID-19.
EI sickness benefits
Employees who are quarantined or sick due to COVID-19 may be eligible to receive EI sickness benefits up to a maximum amount of $573 per week for up to 15 weeks. Certain measures were adopted with respect to EI sickness benefits in order to respond to novel challenges posed by COVID-19. These measures include:
- waiving of the one-week waiting period to allow new claimants who are quarantined to be paid for the first week of their claim;
- the creation of a dedicated toll-free number to support enquiries related to waiving the EI sickness benefits waiting period (1-833-381-2725);
- waiving of the obligation for people in quarantine to provide a medical certificate in support of their claim;
- the possibility for quarantined employees to apply for EI benefits at a later date and to have their claim backdated to cover the period of the delay.
How do employees apply for EI benefits?
At this time, applications should be completed online by visiting the Service Canada website. Individuals who present themselves to Service Canada and who would otherwise be able to complete their application online will not be serviced in person. Employees who present themselves to a Service Canada office in person should expect to go through screening and to be required to practice social distancing measures. Employees experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 should not visit or enter any Service Canada office and should call 1-800-O-Canada for assistance with completing their EI application.
What must employers do once employees have experienced an interruption in earnings?
Without delay, employers must issue a Record of Employment (“ROE”) as this is the most important document allowing employees to access EI benefits. In order to complete the ROE, employers should be aware of and use the following codes when indicating the reason for the interruption in employee earnings:
- When the employee is sick or quarantined, use code D (Illness or injury) as the reason for separation (block 16). Do not add comments.
- When the employee is no longer working due to a shortage of work because the business has closed or decreased operations due to coronavirus (COVID-19), use code A (Shortage of work). Do not add comments.
How long will it take for employees to receive their EI benefits?
Under normal circumstances, eligible employees are told to expect to receive their first payment within 28 days of submitting a completed application. In the present circumstances and in light of the fact that an unprecedented amount of applications are being received, the processing delay may be longer.
What other financial measures are available to assist employees and employers who are experiencing financial hardship due to COVID-19?
Canada Emergency Response Benefit
The Canadian government previously announced that it would make available an Emergency Care Benefit and an Emergency Support Benefit to employees who did not qualify for EI. On March 25, 2020, the government announced that it created a streamlined benefit, the “Canada Emergency Response Benefit” which combines these two benefits to streamline the application process and will provide $2,000 per month for four months to people who have lost their income due to COVID-19.
Supplementary Unemployment Benefit Plan
Employers who have no choice but to lay off their employees may elect to enroll in a Supplementary Unemployment Benefit Plan (SUB Plan) which allows employers to top up an employee’s employment insurance benefits during a period of unemployment due to a temporary or permanent layoff. The amount of the top up can be up to 95% of the employee’s weekly wages/salary, less the amount of the employee’s corresponding EI benefits.
The Government of Canada has instituted a “Work-Sharing Program” which exists to assist eligible employers to avoid layoffs where there is a temporary reduction in the normal level of business activity, namely as a result of COVID-19. Previously, a Work-Sharing Program could only last for a maximum of 38 weeks, however the maximum period has been extended to 76 weeks in response to COVID-19.
Participating employees receive income support in exchange for agreeing to work a reduced schedule and to share available work with other employees over a specified period of time.
Additionally, many provincial governments across Canada have announced measures to assist their respective populations in overcoming what is a period of financial hardship for many. Employers and employees should verify if they are eligible for any such programs.
The COVID-19 situation is a rapidly evolving one with new measures being adopted or modified day-by-day and hour-by-hour.
By Carly Meredith, DLA Piper