EI inequities could be easily corrected
TheStar.com – Opinion – EI inequities could be easily corrected
March 13, 2009. Carol Goar
The vote was 152 in favour, 141 against.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper does not have to respect the will of Parliament. It was a non-binding motion. But New Democrat Chris Charlton clearly struck a nerve this week when she called on the government to bolster Canada’s stingy and inequitable Employment Insurance system.
“We must pay attention to the victims of this recession,” said Charlton, who represents the hard-hit riding of Hamilton Mountain. “It is not just New Democrats who are saying that. Economists of all stripes agree that a crucial component of charting the road to recovery is to provide support to those who have lost jobs through no fault of their own.”
She proposed five reforms:
Eliminate the two-week waiting period to start receiving benefits.
Lower the qualifying period to 360 hours of paid work in every part of the country. Under current rules, an applicant in Toronto needs 665 hours. That excludes 78 per cent of the jobless.
Allow self-employed workers to participate in the program.
Raise the wage replacement rate from 55 per cent to 60 per cent.
Make it easier for workers to get training.
It was no surprise that every Conservative in the House voted against Charlton’s motion. It exposed the most serious weakness in their Jan. 27 budget.
Nor was it a surprise that the Bloc Québécois backed the motion enthusiastically. It has opposed the budget since Day 1.
What was interesting was the Liberal stance. A month ago, the official Opposition endorsed the budget, asking only that the government provide Parliament with quarterly reports on its implementation. Now party leader Michael Ignatieff is expressing serious reservations about the economic plan.
It’s too late to amend it. The House of Commons gave the implementing legislation final approval on March 4. The Liberal-dominated Senate also passed it yesterday, not daring to block the flow of badly needed infrastructure funds and tax relief as public anxiety mounts.
The best hope for Canada’s 1.3 million unemployed is that Harper will take Tuesday’s vote as a signal that it would be in his political interest, as well as the public interest, to shore up jobless benefits before the recession gets worse.
Today’s grim unemployment statistics may give him a prod.
One possibility that won strong support in the debate on Charlton’s resolution was treating all workers equally, no matter where they live. No one — not even politicians from disadvantaged regions – considered it fair that employment insurance claimants in Ontario and Alberta have to work longer for fewer benefits than their counterparts in the Maritimes.
Liberal MP Dominic LeBlanc, who represents the New Brunswick riding of Beauséjour, said it makes no sense to him that easterners who come home after losing their jobs in the oil patch – as many do – are treated more generously than their former co-workers in Fort McMurray.
At minimum, Harper could correct this inequity.
He could also improve accessibility to retraining quite easily.
The Employment Insurance Act stipulates that all beneficiaries must actively search for work and be willing to accept an offer of employment, even if it means dropping out of a training program they’ve paid for.
The cost of eliminating this barrier would be negligible. The effort would be minimal.
So far, there is no sign the Conservatives are willing to take even these modest steps and no indication the Liberals are prepared to do anything more than register their disapproval.
Charlton tried to act as a catalyst. But it will take public pressure to get Ottawa moving.