MP pans EI situation
Despite federal finance minister Jim Flaherty hailing what he calls signs of Canada’s emergence from the global recession, the national unemployment rate stands at 8.2 per cent at the time of this writing. While BC premier Gordon Campbell basks in the glory of the Vancouver Winter Olympics, a provincial government website states that, “unemployment is expected to continue to rise into 2010 before declining in 2011”. According to economist Sylvain Schetagne, “the ‘real’ unemployment rate, which includes discouraged workers and involuntary part-time workers, [is] 12.1per cent.”
A Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives analysis indicates that EI benefits for more than 500,000 unemployed Canadians will soon run out, and that more than 800,000 unemployed Canadians do not even qualify for EI benefits. This is in addition to the workers in the forestry and manufacturing sectors who lost their jobs in 2008 and whose benefits are already exhausted. How realistic is it to believe that these individuals will find work while the unemployment rate is still high?
Of the thousands of unemployed who do not qualify for EI, most fail to do so because of the minimum requirements on eligible hours. Women working while they care for their families or returning from a leave are particularly penalized by the eligibility requirements, as are recent immigrants. The West Kootenays are more rural with fewer employment opportunities than either the Okanagan or East Kootenays. It is an area where seasonal and part-time employment account for many of the jobs, but the number of hours to qualify for EI is the same as for the more economically stable East Kootenays and Okanagan.
New Democrats have been critical of the federal government’s lack of job creation strategy and have called for a further extension of EI benefits and a relaxing of eligibility criteria. Private member’s Bill C-280, introduced in the House of Commons by NDP MP Carol Hughes, would reduce the qualifying period for benefits in Canada to 360 hours. This number is more realistic than the 560 hours now required in the BC Southern Interior.
The federal government has extended EI benefits to long-tenured workers, paying an additional five to 20 weeks to qualifying claimants. The provision is intended to target older workers with minimal claims over recent years. However, those who claimed benefits prior to January 2009, such as younger workers, many women and workers in seasonal industries or in high unemployment regions, do not qualify. Workers in forestry and manufacturing who lost their jobs in 2008 are also excluded.
At present, for those whose EI benefits have finished, or for those who did not qualify, the primary public option remaining is social assistance. Most workers laid off from well paying jobs have mortgages, RRSPs, RESPs, life insurance and cars. Not until they are divested of most assets are they eligible for assistance. Most people will exhaust their savings and borrow to pay bills, rather than dispose of their property. These significant and unnecessary changes to the lives of many people could be avoided if the recommendations of the NDP were instituted while we wait for a full economic recovery.
The Conservative government’s concern for fiscal accountability over the needs of the unemployed is insensitive at best. Without help, more individuals and families will emerge from this recession deeply in debt or destitute, and even more vulnerable to future fluctuations in the economy.