The minority-governing federal Conservatives have a few more problems than the census, the gun registry, the wasted billion-dollar G20 summit, and their imbecilic plans to spend billions more dollars on prisons and jets.
As former U.S. President Bill Clinton adviser and strategist James Carville once coined: “It’s the economy, stupid.”
The Conservatives made a classic mistake this summer. They allowed their ideological underbelly to set the government’s agenda. They should have kept the focus on the economy. It was working for them.
And now instead of controlling the discussion on the economy, their record there is also problematic.
Last week, experts confirmed that Canada’s jobs recovery is not such a recovery and that unemployment is expected to hover around eight per cent into 2011. Labour economists say the unemployment rate is much higher than that when you consider those who have given up looking for work, the discouraged worker, and those who are under-employed.
The Conservatives could get back on track by holding their noses and doing something about benefits for the unemployed and beefed up training dollars for the provinces.
Unfortunately, a key temporary measure to help Canada’s unemployed ended today. The universal five-week extension which allowed the unemployed to collect an additional five weeks of EI benefits up to a maximum of 50 weeks will no longer be available to anyone who loses their job after today.
This measure has infused an
estimated $1.15 billion into local economies across the country. By February, more than 500,000 people had received the extra five weeks. The extension was an acknowledgement that long-term unemployment worsens during a recession and the number of people who run out of benefits before finding a new job increases.
Although unlike the United States, where benefits for the unemployed have been extended several times, Canada does not count how many people exhaust their benefits and still have no job.
Two other projects end
Just as important, for workers in high unemployment regions, two long-standing EI pilot projects are about to be eliminated unless the Conservatives take action. Both of these measures are extremely important to workers in our province and many other regions across the country.
The first one allows laid-off workers to have their benefits calculated using their best or highest-earning 14 weeks worked. The other allows anyone collecting EI benefits to work and have earned income up to 40 per cent of the value of their weekly EI cheque without being penalized. These measures will end this fall with the best 14 weeks scheduled to be eliminated for claims started after Oct. 23 and the second measure ending in December.
They should have kept the focus on the economy. It was working for them.
Both measures encourage people to seek out and take short-work weeks or part-time work without penalty. In fact, they are an important support for our labour market when you consider the growing percentage of precarious work.
Indeed, they are as important to employers as they are to workers. An impact analysis done by the government in 2006 found that business leaders are concerned about the growing number of older workers and the potential for labour shortages in some occupations and industries. The analysis also noted that a growing number of employers rely on short-term and irregular temporary work arrangements.
These EI measures are not just about work incentives but have proven effective in addressing the realities of today’s labour market, which is exactly what the country’s employment insurance system is supposed to do — respond to the realities of the current labour market.
And that labour market, whether we like it or not, has a full 36 per cent of Canadians employed in non-standard and precarious jobs, including seasonal and part-time work. Canada’s EI system should be responsive to these changing labour market realities — realities that were exacerbated by the recession.
These are but a few of several important measures under our current EI system that will end this fall.
In addition, a program that encouraged longer-term training by allowing workers to collect up to two years of benefits will soon end for new claimants.
What’s clear is that the jobs market has not fully recovered in many areas of the country which means unemployed workers and their families need support. We also know that if workers are to be prepared to take the new job opportunities that will be in the future labour market, they will need training and upskilling and they will need income to support themselves while they acquire these needs skills.
For the federal Conservatives getting back on track should mean shifting the focus once again to the economy. And if they really want to show Canadians they know what they are doing, they could start by extending these measures under employment insurance and boost labour market supports and training. This would give the unemployed a fighting chance.
We’ll see if they have the political sense to do the right thing for Canada’s unemployed or whether the Conservative underbelly is now running the show.
Lana Payne is president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Labour. She can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.
Her column returns Sept. 25.