Premiers take on thorny issue of EI overhaul

TheGlobeandMail.com – Politics – Premiers take on thorny issue of EI overhaul: Proposal to replace regional waiting periods with national standard is on the agenda

Aug. 05, 2009.   Brian Laghi, Ottawa

The Harper government is expected to face increased pressure to adopt more uniform qualifying standards for employment insurance when the premiers emerge from a meeting Wednesday in Regina.
A proposal from the western premiers to replace regional waiting periods with new countrywide standards is on the leaders’ agenda.

The Conservative government has struck a panel along with the federal Liberals to revamp the system, with the Liberals wanting the regional patchwork of qualifying periods replaced with a requirement that all Canadians be able to claim benefits after working 360 hours. The Tories oppose the idea but have not ruled out streamlining standards.

The issue is potentially explosive. If the panel fails, the Liberals could move a no-confidence vote and force an election.

Several provinces, particularly Ontario, say the regional standards discriminate against their residents by making them work longer than people in other parts of the country to qualify for benefits. The system has more than 50 separate regional sets of rules.

Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall, who will chair the meeting, said Tuesday that Ottawa can expect a call for more homogeneity, but that the provinces still have a way to go before they reach a unified position.

“I think you’re going to see calls for more uniformity by premiers and we’ll see what comes out of the actual communiqué,” he said in an interview. “This is why we have these discussions.”

Last June, the western premiers proposed replacing the regional system with three new qualifying categories: urban, rural and remote.

It’s not clear whether all the premiers will agree.

One Ontario official said that the province wants to ensure that its urban workers who lose their jobs are treated equitably.

“There is hope for consensus, but there are a lot of regional inequities that the federal government will have to take into account,” the source said.

“We will continue to search for fairness for unemployed people in Ontario.”

The source said that, although the western premiers like nationalized standards, other provinces may not be as warm to the idea, particularly if a new system extends the qualifying period for their workers.

Currently, a worker in a region of low unemployment must put in as many as 700 hours to qualify for EI, and benefits may be less generous than in other areas. Where unemployment is high, the current minimum hours worked to qualify is 420.

Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff said a recent TD Bank report estimated that a 360-hour standard would cost $1-billion, funded either through program cuts or increased EI premiums. The TD report recommended a national standard of 560 hours, at a cost of $500-million annually.

The premiers are also expected to discuss emergency preparedness for a possible outbreak of H1N1 flu this winter, as well as an examination of the pension system and options for improving the incomes of retirees.

Mr. Wall added that the premiers also want to discuss the effectiveness of stimulus spending and what leaders should focus on when the economy improves.

“There are going to be many opportunities for this country coming out of recession,” he said. “I think we need a national approach and vision for the knowledge economy, for the innovation economy, for what’s next.”

The provinces also want to go further in reducing internal trade barriers, Mr. Wall said.

He said doing so is important if Canada is to persuade the United States to drop policies that discriminate in favour of U.S. companies in purchasing materials for stimulus projects.

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