Employment Insurance failing the unemployed

Lana
Lana Payne
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There has been plenty of hype, most of it from the federal government, about how well Canada is faring through this great recession.

Stephen Harper's need to "recalibrate" his government and economic plan was one of the many reasons he gave for proroguing government until after the Olympics.

There has been plenty of hype, most of it from the federal government, about how well Canada is faring through this great recession.

Stephen Harper's need to "recalibrate" his government and economic plan was one of the many reasons he gave for proroguing government until after the Olympics.

Perhaps now that the prime minister has so much extra time on his hands, he might consider reading a new study on how Canada's unemployed are faring through this recession and just how poorly the current social safety net, including Canada's Employment Insurance system, is equipped to keep Canadians from falling through the cracks.

The study, authored by the chief economist with the Canadian Labour Congress, Andrew Jackson, delves into how responsive or non-responsive the EI program has been during this recession.

The lean-and-mean employment insurance system we have today is the product of painful changes implemented largely under Liberal governments in the 1990s. This is the first recession since those changes were made, and as the Jackson study points out, far too many Canadians are being left out in the cold.

The study was done as part of the annual Alternative Federal Budget project by the Canadian Centre of Policy Alternatives.

The findings back up a report released last summer by Lars Osberg, an economics professor and chair of the economics department at Dalhousie University. Dr. Osberg noted that the "weakness of Canada's employment insurance system has become a glaring federal policy omission.

"Now that they need a social safety net, many Canadians are discovering they do not have much of one," said Dr. Osberg. And compared to other countries in the Organization for Economic Co-operation Development, unemployment benefits in Canada are very low.

Risks changing

A weakened EI system combined with deteriorating social assistance programs in most provinces has shifted the risk. In other words, according to Dr. Osberg, the burden of the recession is being borne by Canadian families. He recommended a number of changes to the EI system to better meet the needs of Canadians.

Jackson made similar conclusions using data about the program provided through Statistics Canada. Jackson notes that Statistics Canada does not provide monthly data on the number of people exhausting their EI claims, or running out of benefits.

Such information would and should help inform public policy action. For example, because this information is provided in the United States, both the federal and state governments have been forced to respond by extending, on several occasions, benefits for unemployed workers.

Having that information in Canada would certainly define even more clearly why benefit extension is needed.

But, then again, perhaps the government does not want to know this because knowing means they would have to act.

This is what we do know in Canada, according to the Jackson study. The country's unemployment rate has gone from 6.3 per cent to 8.6 per cent since October 2008. Low unemployment areas like Ontario, Alberta and B.C. have been hardest hit. The number of people collecting regular EI benefits (monthly average) increased by nearly 62 per cent or over 300,000 Canadians.

Many more did not qualify for benefits at all. For example, the number of unemployed workers not in receipt of benefits jumped from 650,760 in October 2008 to 777,400 in October 2009. And the number of people exhausting their claims, in other words being forced to use up all their benefits because they have been unable to find a new job, is growing. This is especially the case among older workers.

Jackson estimates that between the fall of 2009 and into early 2010, as many as 500,000 or possibly more unemployed Canadians will have run out of benefits.

The response from the government to deal with this crisis has been, at best, tepid.

Added to the problem is an anemic job market.

A report last week by Statistics Canada had little good to say about Canada's job picture. According to the agency, the number of Canadians working part-time, not by choice, continues to climb. One-third of those working part-time in Ontario, for example, would have preferred full-time work.

Newfoundlanders and Labradorians expressed the highest level of dissatisfaction with their employment status. Some 41 per cent of the 31,000 people working part-time in this province said they'd rather be working full-time.

Perhaps if Parliament was open, matters like Canada's employment insurance would get attention. Unfortunately, we have to count on a prime minister who is no fan of EI to make the improvements needed to help Canadians.

Somehow it is doubtful he is recalibrating his government's response to Canada's unemployed. Instead, a population of out-of-work Canadians and their families have been left clinging to the country's tattered social safety net. And their fingers are slipping.

Lana Payne is president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Labour. She can be reached by e-mail at lanapayne@nl.rogers.com. Her column returns Feb. 13.

Organizations: Employment Insurance, Statistics Canada, Canadian Labour Congress Canadian Centre of Policy Alternatives Dalhousie University Organization for Economic Co Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Labour

Geographic location: Canada, Ontario, United States Alberta B.C.

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Recent comments

  • Linda
    July 02, 2010 - 13:33

    Hats off to You! This exactly what is happening with our EI system. Keep on writing your articles. I have been laid off 2 times in one and a half years. Being a older worker, my age is against me!

  • Madonna Tilley
    July 02, 2010 - 13:10

    Is this all you can do Lana is bash the Prime Minister every chance you get no matter what the issue? Everything is always his fault. Get a life my dear. Better yet get a real job.

  • Linda
    July 01, 2010 - 20:22

    Hats off to You! This exactly what is happening with our EI system. Keep on writing your articles. I have been laid off 2 times in one and a half years. Being a older worker, my age is against me!

  • Madonna Tilley
    July 01, 2010 - 19:45

    Is this all you can do Lana is bash the Prime Minister every chance you get no matter what the issue? Everything is always his fault. Get a life my dear. Better yet get a real job.