Tories offer little to unemployed – Opinion – Tories offer little to unemployed
May 26, 2009

As layoffs multiply, the clamour for making Employment Insurance (EI) more accessible keeps on rising. But the Conservative government in Ottawa demonstrated yesterday that it is not listening.

In layoff-ravaged Oshawa, Human Resources Minister Diane Finley announced some $500 million in support for long-tenured workers who have lost their jobs and are seeking to upgrade their skills.

Actually, it was a re-announcement of a program first unveiled in the January budget. And, while welcome, the new benefits will extend only to unemployed workers who are already receiving EI. Those ineligible for EI – including almost seven-in-10 jobless persons in Ontario – were given the back of the government’s hand yesterday.

There are currently varying EI eligibility requirements for different regions across the country, from a low of 420 hours worked to a high of 700 hours. The opposition parties, unions, economists and even Christine Elliott (the federal finance minister’s wife) have called for a “flattening” of these requirements to make the system more accessible. The Liberals are recommending a standard of 360 hours worked throughout the country for the duration of the economic crisis.

“It is simply a completely unwise, unthought-out proposal to raise payroll taxes to the roof in perpetuity for workers and small business,” says Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

This is not true. The payroll taxes to which Harper refers are EI premiums, which have been frozen by the Conservative government. Nothing in the Liberal plan would change that. Nor would the proposed changes remain in place “in perpetuity” – unless Harper believes the recession will last forever.

Yes, the proposed change would cost the federal treasury money – about $1 billion. But that expenditure pales beside the $3 billion the Conservative government has committed to its home renovation tax credit. Arguably, a more generous EI program would do much more for the economy by buttressing the purchasing power of the jobless.

Unfortunately, ideology is trumping common sense in this debate. The Harper Conservatives have never really liked EI, which they see as paying lazy people to avoid work. Finley let that cat out of the bag earlier this year when she said the government didn’t want to make it too “lucrative” for people to stay at home.

The opposition parties are poised to force an election over this issue. “We don’t need another election right now,” said Finley yesterday.

To avoid one, the government is likely going to have to adjust its stubborn stance on EI.

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