Ignatieff and Harper squander chance to strengthen EI

TheStar.com – Opinion – Ignatieff and Harper squander chance to strengthen EI
January 30, 2009. Carol Goar

In most respects, this week’s federal budget is a reasonable plan to blunt the impact of a severe global recession.

The Conservatives accepted the need to intervene in the marketplace. They incorporated suggestions from the provinces, the municipalities and other parties into their economic stimulus package. They offered modest relief to low-income Canadians.

But there is one critical gap in the budget: It does nothing to help the millions of workers who are excluded from Canada’s employment insurance system.

Some of them have already lost their jobs. Many more will in the months ahead.

Under current rules, just 54 per cent of the unemployed are eligible for EI benefits (41 per cent actually receive them). In some parts of the country – Toronto, for example – fewer than one in four laid-off workers qualify for benefits.

The reason: They can’t meet the entrance requirements.

An EI applicant in Toronto needs 665 hours of paid work in the previous year to qualify for benefits. That rules out most temporary workers, contract workers, part-time workers and full-time workers who have been through repeated plant shutdowns. (The threshold varies across the country.)

The Conservatives did not create these rules. The Liberals did, 15 years ago. But neither party appears willing to change them.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper did make one concession to the many Canadians – representing business, labour, think-tanks and social agencies – calling for EI reform. He offered a five-week extension of benefits to individuals who qualify for the maximum coverage available (currently 45 weeks of support).

For workers who have held steady full-time jobs for the past year, this is good news. But for most people at risk of losing their livelihood, it is meaningless.

The Liberals could have proposed an amendment, calling on the government to open up the EI system. To show good faith, they could also have identified ways to pay for it.

Unfortunately, they chose not to do that. They demanded, instead, that the Conservatives provide quarterly reports to Parliament on the implementation of the budget. “We’re putting this government on probation,” newly chosen Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff said.

Tactically, it was a clever move. It allowed his party to support the budget conditionally.

Substantively, it did nothing.

This leaves Canadians who believe EI reform is urgently needed in a quandary. Once Tuesday’s budget becomes law, there is little hope of broadening EI coverage in time for this recession. (Measures that require spending – as this one would – are seldom introduced outside the budget process.)

Putting pressure on the Liberals might work. The final vote on the ways and means motion to enact the budget is weeks away. And Ignatieff has left open the possibility of changing his mind.

Urging provincial premiers, corporate executives, union leaders, economists, social activists and prominent community figures, all of whom want meaningful EI reform, to speak out again might be productive. But it would take an extraordinary effort to convince the Conservatives to shift course.

Persuading the Commons finance committee that EI needs to be overhauled might get the issue back on the political agenda. But that is a long-term strategy.

In short, none of the options looks promising. But they’re all worth pursuing. At the same time, supplementary action is needed.

The provinces can’t fix EI, but they can bolster other safety nets such as social assistance and children’s benefits.

Employers and unions can’t ensure that every worker who pays EI premiums is entitled to benefits, but they can facilitate work sharing and help laid-off workers find effective retraining programs.

Friends, neighbours and community volunteers can’t turn EI back into an equitable stopgap for the jobless, but they can ease the hardship of unemployment.

Considering Harper’s ideological aversion to social spending, he went beyond his comfort zone this week. Considering Ignatieff’s solemn promise to protect the vulnerable, he fell short of the mark.

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