Modernizing EI for Gig Workers

Survey response to question on whether there were enough financial supports available for the self-employed during periods of hardship prior to the temporary measures. Image from Canada.ca

Employment Insurance, aka EI, is about security. There is a foundation of essential needs that humans require to flourish beyond just existing. If people are in the fortunate position to tap into their creativity, into their performative nature and spark their artistic spirit, it’s most often because their basic needs – water/food/shelter/heat are met. If a person is lucky enough to have a career in a creative field, it often comes with considerable sacrifice in terms of the type of lifestyle they can afford; there is a reason the moniker ‘starving artist’ was coined.

In the past few years, the COVID-19 pandemic shone a glaring light on the lack of financial security in artists’ lives. In March 2020, entire industries were shut down overnight, including the film and television industries. Fortunately, with a lot of hard work and a dedication to safety protocols, ACTRA Toronto and the film and television industry found a way to continue to operate safely and engage its members, but there remained periods of high alert when very few people were working. Thus, there was a need for governmental financial assistance.

During COVID-19, individuals with traditional employment were able to receive relief funds due to job loss associated with the lockdowns, whereas self-employed artists were left behind. In the early days of COVID-19, ACTRA successfully lobbied the federal government for its members and other gig workers to be included in the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) and the Canada Recovery Benefit (CRB). Now that CERB and CRB have come to an end, ACTRA is urging the federal government to modernize Employment Insurance (EI) in Canada so that self-employed gig-workers – such as performers – can share in the financial securities that employed workers have always enjoyed.

Modernizing EI is also about inclusivity. Performers aren’t included in financial assistance programs like EI, as they don’t contribute, but here lies the opportunity for modernization.

On January 31, 2021, ACTRA Toronto participated in a roundtable on modernizing EI with the federal government and on October 8, 2021, after the Liberal Party won the September 2021 federal election, ACTRA National Executive Director Marie Kelly made a submission to Employment and Social Development Canada’s Consultation on Modernizing Canada’s Employment Insurance Program. The submission highlighted the need for change so that EI would include self-employed gig-based individuals such as performers. In July 2022, ACTRA Toronto will make its own submission.

“Gig workers,” a blanket term covering workers who are often on temporary contracts, are considered self-employed and are hired to perform a job with a specific skill set for a measured period. These workers are not classified as employees by their engager. They do not pay EI premiums to the government out of their earnings and are therefore ineligible to receive EI payments if they suffer temporary job loss. This group is a vulnerable sector, to begin with, due to their precarious status. Unfortunately, when organizations cut back on labour, those who are self-employed are often the first to be let go.

Performers across multiple disciplines earn 44 percent below the national income average, according to a study by Hills Strategies Research. Among that group, actors earn even less. They are among the most vulnerable and lowest paid professionals in Canada and enjoy little financial protection.

The pandemic blew open a discussion on this inequity, and ACTRA believes it is time for significant systemic change and action on Liberal campaign promises.

Eligibility is the largest barrier to getting self-employed workers covered by EI benefits.

When we are self-employed, we don’t pay benefits, so we can’t receive them. The Liberal Party of Canada made several election promises in 2021 that included a proposal to introduce a new EI benefit for self-employed Canadians. Delivered through the tax system, it would provide unemployment assistance comparable to EI and last for as much as 26 weeks and provide up to $15,500 yearly when it is needed most. Self-employed Canadians seeking to access this benefit would only be responsible for contributing the portion they would normally pay if they were a salaried employee.

This would be a huge step forward. Self-employed gig workers, performers on contracts and all those who work without the benefits of being classified as an employee would be included in a program to help provide some financial security in times of need. Performers who had worked on a contract and found themselves in a period of job loss due to factors beyond their control would have a safety net. They could create, perform and nurture their art without the worry of financial insecurity.

There are many factors piled against the bold choice we have made to work as creatives. We defy the traditional work model and dare to make art so everyone can enjoy a balanced, entertained and enlightened society. With ACTRA’s advocacy to modernize EI for gig workers, self-employed performers can glimpse the possibility of being recognized by the federal government and having some financial security while building a career comprised of temporary, contract-based gig work. Choosing the life of an artist has its rewards but, let’s face it, the instability is hard. Many artists make a choice to take more stable work for family and other personal reasons. But it doesn’t have to be quite so hard. We are closer than ever to having some financial security for self-employed performers experiencing job loss. ACTRA is speaking, and the government is listening. Let’s keep pushing for change!

Victoria Brooks is an award-winning actress on both stage and screen. Trained in theatre, improv comedy and voice-over, her skills have been put to work in LA, NYC, and her home base of Toronto. Follow her on social media as @Victoria.Louise.Brooks and see more at www.victoriabrooks.ca.