Ignatieff eyes easier EI for Ontario
TheStar.com – Canada – Ignatieff eyes easier EI for Ontario
April 15, 2009. Tonda MacCharles, OTTAWA BUREAU
LONDON, Ont. – Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff plans to propose a radical overhaul of the employment insurance system that would provide equal access to jobless benefits for all regions of the country.
Ignatieff, on a tour of southwestern Ontario, told a business audience there should be “a national standard of eligibility” that sets a uniform number of hours that a worker anywhere in Canada would need to be eligible to draw employment benefits.
Such a measure could make it easier for people in hard-hit Ontario who find themselves out of work to qualify for employment insurance.
“We think now, with the nature of the national character of this recession, that a national standard is fairer. This is an issue of fairness,” Ignatieff told reporters.
The federal Liberal leader pointed to six different standards in southwestern Ontario for the number of hours workers need to punch in before they qualify to draw unemployment benefits. He said there are 54 different thresholds of eligibility across the country.
Generally, the number of work hours required by the EI scheme depends on the local or regional labour market. In areas with traditionally more job opportunities, the thresholds are higher than in areas where, for example, employment is seasonal – like fishing and logging – and work hours are harder to come by.
TD Bank chief economist Don Drummond suggested the cost of standardizing access to benefits could be as high as $1 billion, if, for example, the national standard was set at 420 hours in the previous 52 weeks. Drummond supports such a change.
But Ignatieff did not put a cost on his plan, saying the party is investigating a range of options and is trying to come up with a “good, reliable estimate of what that could cost.”
In London, Ignatieff said the federal Liberals are looking at whether EI changes should be “permanent or temporary,” and are investigating the long-term implications for the government’s finances “precisely because of deficit.”
But Ignatieff flatly rejected the idea of raising taxes to pay for EI reform.
“There would be a hit, and we would seek to deal with the hit with effective expenditure review and reallocation. I’m not going to raise taxes to fund EI. That would whack business right between the eyes and probably make the unemployment situation worse.”
But Ignatieff said he did not rule out raising taxes and cutting government spending in the future, after the economy and government revenues begin to recover, if the government were faced with a “hypothetical, structural deficit we can’t dig ourselves out of in three, four, five years.”
Answering questions from the audience after a luncheon speech, Ignatieff said EI reform is crucial to any anti-poverty plan.
“You can go from a job to poverty very fast in this country,” Ignatieff said.
A Liberal anti-poverty and economic renewal strategy would include EI reform; a new national early learning and child-care program that would retain the Conservatives taxable $100 monthly benefit for pre-schoolers; improved access to post-secondary education; more federal money for basic science and research; and basic literacy, numeracy and language training.
Drummond said in an email interview that “standardizing access to EI (and for the most part also standardizing the length of benefits) at the same qualification standard is a fairly common recommendation made by many, including ourselves.”
“Just because you live in a place that has a below-average unemployment rate doesn’t mean it is easier to find a job,” he said.