EI’s problems forgotten, not fixed
TheStar.com – Opinion
February 03 2010. Carol Goar
The Prime Minister was half-right about employment insurance.
Stephen Harper assured Canadians a year ago that the glaring regional inequities in the system would sort themselves out as the recession widened and deepened.
The adjustment was painfully slow, but it happened.
A year ago, a laid-off worker living in Toronto needed 630 hours of paid employment to qualify for jobless benefits. He or she was entitled to 17 weeks of payments.
Today, a Torontonian who loses his or her job needs 560 hours of paid work to qualify for employment insurance. He or she gets 25 weeks of benefits.
Last February, there was an 11-week difference in jobless benefits between Toronto and Charlottetown. This February, it is down to three weeks.
For all its shortcomings, the EI system does respond – gradually – to regional changes in unemployment. The huge discrepancies the premiers were howling about last winter have largely disappeared.
But Harper was wrong when he told Canadians: “The system we have in place meets the needs of the market.”
It fails that test miserably.
It was built for an era of full-time jobs that provided a decent income and came with health and retirement benefits. It was designed to tide over laid-off workers while they found a new job or the factory reopened.
That Canada is long gone. Most of the jobs on offer now are part-time, short-term or casual. They come with no benefits. They seldom last long enough to allow a worker to accumulate the hours needed to qualify for EI benefits. In some cases, they don’t pay enough to live on.
These jobs vanish when demand slumps. They don’t lead to permanent positions. They leave millions of workers with no financial security and no safety net.
It’s true the current EI system serves parts of the market – the manufacturing sector, the mining, forestry and fishery sectors and the public sector – relatively well. The trouble is, those sectors are either declining or shedding their permanent employees in favour of cheaper, more dispensable contract workers.
Going into the recession, 37 per cent of Canadian employment was “non-standard” (part-time, temporary or short-term). Coming out, the percentage will be much higher. Many young people will spend their working lives stringing together contracts.
There is a second problem. Most of the blue collar jobs lost in this recession are gone forever. Many smokestack industries will never recover. The economic base of the country’s manufacturing heartland will have to be rebuilt.
The EI system doesn’t provide much support for workers caught in long-term structural shifts. They are entitled to roughly a year of jobless benefits. They can apply for retraining, but the terms are stringent and funds are limited.
The early victims of the recession have reached the end of their EI allowance. Many haven’t found work and didn’t apply – or weren’t accepted – for training programs that meet Ottawa’s specifications. Their last resort is welfare.
Yet Harper claims the EI system “meets the needs of the market.”
He owes Canadians an explanation of what “market” he means and why so many of them are excluded from it.
Regrettably, the opposition parties aren’t pressing him on the issue.
The Liberals seemed willing to fight for EI reform, until they checked the polls and found it wasn’t a popular cause. They backed off. New Democrats insisted on substantive EI improvements, until Harper proposed a modest extension of benefits. They voted for it, saying it would help “the people who elected us.”
Canada’s hole-ridden EI system still isn’t fixed. Nor is it fit for the 21st century.
It has merely slipped off the political agenda.
< http://www.thestar.com/opinion/article/759584–ei-s-problems-forgotten-not-fixed >