Longer wait for election and for EI

TheStar.com – Opinion – Longer wait for election and for EI
June 23, 2009.   Gillian Steward

If anything became clear last week when Stephen Harper and Michael Ignatieff agreed they didn’t want a summer election, it was that neither one of them has ever had to apply for employment insurance.

If they had, they would not likely have sloughed off EI reform to a yet-to-be selected panel that will report back in a few months, or however long it takes to figure out what needs to be done.

In the meantime, thousands of Canadians wait and wait for the first payment to kick in; or they discover they don’t qualify because they didn’t work long enough or were living in the wrong place when they got laid off.

The recession is global, people have been thrown out of work everywhere, and yet the federal government doles out EI as though it is doing recipients a favour they don’t really deserve.

There’s no question that Ontario has been hit hard by job losses in the manufacturing sector. But other provinces have also seen the number of unemployed rise dramatically. B.C. has the highest rate of full-time job loss in the country. In Calgary, the number of EI recipients tripled between February and May.

EI horror stories abound. A young oilfield worker told me he blew his savings and lost his condo while waiting for EI payments to kick in after he was laid off. A middle-aged electrical engineer who was laid off after several years of continuous employment had yet to receive an EI payment four months after applying.

A single mother who supported her two children by working two jobs in food services was laid off from both of them but had to spend weeks wrangling with EI bureaucrats before she saw any money.

“I asked them how they expected me to pay the mortgage and feed my kids … I was getting desperate. Finally, a supervisor called me and said I would be receiving payments,” she said.

Others give up much sooner, or eventually get turned down flat. Some of the newly unemployed turn to various income assistance programs administered and funded by the provinces.

No wonder the Western premiers led by B.C.’s Gordon Campbell have urged the Harper government to make EI more accessible and equitable for Canadians no matter where they live. No doubt they are worried that the provinces will have to ante up more and more money to make up for the shortfall in EI payments.

They should also worry that the social safety net has become so shredded it doesn’t offer any substantial backup for people who find themselves in dire circumstances.

“You could be living under a bridge and they give you a $200 comfort allowance,” said a Calgary woman who had to turn to the Salvation Army for housing after she was laid off. The Calgary Food Bank reports that in April demand for grocery hampers was up by 70 per cent compared with the same time last year. But while non-profit agencies work hard to bridge the gap they are also facing a drop in donations and volunteers.

Harper and Ignatieff avoided an election that neither one of them wants right now. Not much of an accomplishment. But they did nothing to alleviate the frustration and anger of people who thought EI would tide them over until the job market improves and they can go back to work.

They’ll have to fend for themselves over the summer because the Prime Minister and the Prime Minister-in-waiting just aren’t that interested in their problems.

Gillian Steward is a Calgary writer and journalist, and former managing editor of the Calgary Herald. Her column appears every other week.

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