Employment Insurance (EI) is the federal government program that provides biweekly benefits to those who are involuntarily unemployed. The amount you can receive and the length of time for which you can receive it depends on several factors, such as how long you have been employed and the overall unemployment rate where you live. 

This blog post will focus on regular Employment Insurance benefits, but it is important to note there are different categories of benefits that have different factors for eligibility, including sickness, caregiver, maternity, and parental benefits.

Employment Insurance Eligibility Requires “Just Cause”

Even though Employment Insurance premiums are taken off your paycheque, it does not mean you are automatically entitled to EI payments when you stop working. The EI system is designed to protect against involuntary employment. Most of the time, such as when an employee is terminated for poor performance or because an employer is downsizing or going out of business, the involuntary nature of unemployment is apparent. 

In certain situations, however, you may be able to argue that even though your employer did not terminate you, the circumstances of your employment left you with no choice but to quit. The most important thing to remember in this type of scenario is that you require a reason or reasons considered legitimate under the law – known as “just cause” – to get EI.

As the government’s default position is quitting your job makes you ineligible for EI, it is the employee’s responsibility to prove just cause and show that they had exhausted all reasonable alternatives before leaving a job. 

What is “Just Cause”?

You will not be eligible for Employment Insurance if you quit your job just because you felt like quitting. Merely not feeling like working or finding your job boring won’t be seen as just cause. A good first step in figuring out whether you might have just cause is considering whether a neutral third party would see quitting as reasonable given the circumstances.

There is no complete list of circumstances where quitting your job would be considered just cause, but Section 29(c) of the Employment Insurance Act provides some concrete examples:

  • sexual or other harassment
  • obligation to accompany a spouse, common-law partner or dependent child to another residence
  • discrimination on a prohibited ground of discrimination within the meaning of the Canadian Human Rights Act
  • working conditions that constitute a danger to health or safety
  • obligation to care for a child or a member of the immediate family
  • reasonable assurance of other employment in the immediate future
  • significant modification of terms and conditions respecting wages or salary
  • excessive overtime work or refusal to pay for overtime work
  • significant changes in work duties
  • antagonism with a supervisor if the claimant is not primarily responsible for the antagonism
  • practices of an employer that are contrary to law
  • discrimination with regard to employment because of membership in an association, organization or union of workers
  • undue pressure by an employer on the claimant to leave their employment

Note that these are not the only things that could be considered just cause. There are many court decisions where other situations similar to the above list have also been found to meet the definition of just cause. More broadly, any situation where an employee does not have a reasonable alternative to quitting their job is likely to meet the just cause requirement.

Employees Must Explore All Reasonable Alternatives Before Quitting

To show quitting was your only reasonable option in the circumstances, it is essential to demonstrate that you took all reasonable steps to avoid becoming unemployed. If you are unable to do this, your Employment Insurance claim will likely be rejected.

For example, you should be able to show that you took reasonable steps to resolve the problem (or problems) that made you quit. This includes exercising remedies under your employment contract or collective agreement, speaking with the human resources department, trying to find alternative working arrangements (either in terms of location or hours) or childcare arrangements, or seeking a temporary leave of absence.

If you ultimately conclude that you have no reasonable alternative but to quit, you should carefully document as much information as you can as you will need this information to show just cause for your EI application. Be as thorough as possible. Bear in mind that your employer will also have an opportunity to provide their input, and the government scrutinizes EI claims to prevent fraud. In some cases, the government may ask for additional information to decide your eligibility, so it is a good idea to have as much information as possible.

Contact Tierney Stauffer LLP in Ottawa, North Bay, and Eastern Ontario for Advice on Employment Matters

At Tierney Stauffer LLP, we are focused on finding effective solutions for both employees and employers facing a variety of employment disputes. Our employment lawyers have extensive experience in litigation, mediation, and arbitration, enabling us to quickly identify the most efficient path to resolution for our clients. Call us at 1-888-799-8057 or contact us online to set up a consultation with an experienced lawyer.


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