Of all the unemployed in Hamilton, just 21.6 per cent of them are receiving employment insurance (EI) benefits, according to a new report that shows Hamilton has been the hardest hit city when it comes to tighter rules to access EI benefits. 

The numbers, published by Press Progress, an arm of the progressive think-tank, Broadbent Institute, also show that Canada has hit a new low in terms of access to EI benefits at 36.6 per cent.

Stricter rules, introduced by the Liberals 1998 and reinforced by the Conservatives more recently lead the charge. So too does precarious employment, and an EI system linked to unemployment in census management areas (CMAs).

Precarious employment driving rate of unemployed, and ineligible for EI

"Precarious employment in our community have skyrocketed," said Deirdre Pike Senior Social Planner, Social Planning and Research Council of Hamilton. "The jobs that are replacing the former good jobs are short contracts, shorter hours, less pay - all the things that are the markers for EI.

"They can't build up those hours and so they'll never be eligible for EI… That's why so many end up on social assistance instead," Pike said.

Hamilton is a standout in the report for having the biggest drop in unemployed accessing benefits since 1997, going from 40.1 per cent to 21.6 per cent in June 2014. The report says the numbers were calculated by Angella MacEwen, a Broadbent Institute policy fellow and senior economist with the Canadian Labour Congress. They combine Statistics Canada numbers on the work force and EI beneficiaries in CMAs. 

Pike says Hamilton "stands out" because its CMA includes Burlington and Grimsby. By combining the cities, the unemployment rate drops and the barrier to access EI in Hamilton, in terms of hours that need to be worked within the last year, skyrockets.

'This is beyond a backlog in applications' says poverty activist

Laura Cattari, who sits on the Hamilton Roundtable for Poverty Reduction and runs Advocacy Hamilton, paints a tough picture for Hamilton's unemployed. 

"You went from anywhere from 180 to 300 hours (in the past 52 weeks) needed to qualify (for EI)…Now, especially if you're in a very low unemployment rate area, you need up to 700 hours to qualify."

"This is beyond a backlog in applications. This is far worse than anything I anticipated," Cattari said.

Cliff Groen, director general of processing and payment services at Service Canada, clarified Hamilton residents need 655 hours to qualify for EI, and said that the report had "critical limitations," citing who is considered unemployed.

"The unemployed population includes many people for whom the program is not designed, such as people who did not work in the previous 12 months (33.9% of unemployed); people who are self-employed and unpaid family workers (4.4% of unemployed); people who have quit their job to go back to school (5.7% of unemployed); and, people who have quit their job without just cause (8% of unemployed)," Groen said.

Nonetheless, Cattari, like Pike, returned to the problem of precarious employment and the markers to qualify for EI benefits.

"What do the other 80 per cent (of unemployed) do? They turn to social services," Cattari said. "I don't think the EI system, the way it's set up, is set up the needs of anyone with precarious employment. That's just not within the realm. If you're not working full time and haven't been working full time for, obviously, more than a couple of years, EI just isn't working for you."