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Q: I was just laid off from a factory job here in Ontario, where I worked for the past six months.  I was told I would have no problem getting Employment Insurance benefits. Can you tell me what it is and what I need to qualify for it?

A: Employment Insurance (EI) is a federal government program set up to help workers financially when they lose their jobs, through no fault of their own.

When you look at your pay stubs, you will see that EI was deducted from each paycheque. Both employer and employee pay jointly into the EI fund, with the employer paying a little more. These deductions ensure your right to file a claim for EI benefits, should your job end.

In order to file an EI claim, you must have worked for a required number of insurable hours (generally between 420 and 700 hours) in the last 52 weeks or since your last EI claim. The required hours are determined based upon the unemployment rate of the province or region you are living in.

If it is your first time entering the work force, you will need a minimum of 910 hours of insured employment. The same rule applies for those who have been absent from the work force for two years or more.

Q: I’ve just applied for EI benefits, but the process seems complicated. What can I expect during the time I am receiving benefits?

A: If you qualify for EI benefits, you will receive them either until you find a job or for a maximum of 45 weeks of benefits (within a duration period of 52 weeks) — whichever comes first.

For most people, the basic rate for calculating benefits is 55 per cent of the weekly average insurable earnings. Effective January 1, 2012, the maximum yearly insurable earnings is $45,900. This means that you can receive a maximum amount of $485 per week.

As an EI recipient, you must complete and submit to your local office a record of your employment status and you must tell the office when you obtain full-time employment. You can do this either by phone or by mail.

You must also report any monies you acquire through employment or otherwise. While collecting EI, you are expected to be looking for a job or upgrading skills by attending courses and you may need to provide proof of job search activity at some point. If you have medical reasons for not being able to work and documentation supporting this, you may be exempt from looking for work for a period of time.

Q: I have a friend who emigrated from India to Toronto recently and applied for welfare. Can you explain what welfare is?

Welfare is the common term for financial (or social) assistance from the government, for those who do not qualify for employment insurance and are in financial distress. It is considered as a last resort to provide the basic necessities of life to those who cannot do so.

For some applicants, the program acts as a temporary bridge until they can find suitable employment, whereas for other applicants — for instance, those with debilitating health issues — it may be a long-term requirement.

Social assistance programs are designed somewhat differently in every province. Each province has its own criteria for eligibility and the programs operate under a variety of departments and names. In Ontario, it is known as Ontario Works. In B.C., it falls under the Ministry of Social Development, and in Alberta it is called Income Support under Alberta’s Human Services ministry.

In order to be eligible for Ontario Works, for example, you must be a resident of Ontario, demonstrate that you are in urgent financial need and are willing to participate in employment assistance activities.  How much you receive will depend upon a number of factors including the family size, rent, assets and any other income you might have. If you are eligible, you may also be entitled to drug benefits, dental coverage and various other allowances.

2) My husband lost his job and is unable to get Employment Insurance (EI) because he doesn’t have enough weeks to qualify. We’ve only been in Canada about a year. Someone suggested that he apply for welfare. What should he be prepared for in this process?

Generally speaking, social assistance is meant as a last resort when all other avenues of assistance have failed, such as seeking help from relatives.

Individuals seeking assistance can do so by consulting the Blue Pages of the phone book under Social Services and calling to request an appointment or by going to the local community or social services office.

Those seeking social assistance will need to be prepared with various documents, such as:

•    Social Insurance Number (SIN card)
•    Health card number
•    Proof of identity and date of birth
•    Employment history/information
•    Income and asset statements
•    Shelter costs (i.e., rent)
•    Status in Canada

Applicants for and recipients of social assistance must be prepared to work, unless they have been exempt by a medical professional and have provided medical documents to the satisfaction of their case worker. They must also be prepared to divulge all sources of income at all times (including but not limited to child benefits, salary, workers’ compensation and disability pensions and other unusual sources of income such as an inheritance or sales of assets and possessions).

As a recipient, you should be prepared to report to your assigned case worker when requested to do so and be prepared to produce certain documents on a regular basis, such as rent and utility receipts and various identification.

Welfare fraud is an ongoing problem so it is critical that you report all income and provide accurate information when applying for assistance and filling out your report cards. Provinces frequently prosecute recipients who provide false information about their income or assets.