Tories would leave jobless workers behind

TheStar.com – Opinion – Tories would leave jobless workers behind
August 12, 2009.   Mike Savage, LIBERAL MP FOR DARTMOUTH–COLE HARBOUR & Marlene Jennings, LIBERAL MP FOR NOTRE-DAME-DE-GRÂCE–LACHINE

On June 17, Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff and Prime Minister Stephen Harper agreed to form a working group that would look at reforms to employment insurance to improve fairness in eligibility requirements for Canadians laid off during this recession. Examining ways to extend EI to the self-employed was also on the agenda.

Besides the issue of fairness, employment insurance in the hands of people who qualify is a major contributor to returning our economy to health. It does this first by putting money in the hands of people who will spend it immediately, thus providing immediate stimulus to the economy. Second, and perhaps most important, it provides a bridge for workers to the jobs of tomorrow.

Since that time in June, more than 52,000 people have been added to the unemployment lines. While economists vary in their opinions regarding whether or not the recession is over, one thing they all agree on is that it will take a long time for the jobs to come back. In fact, thousands of the manufacturing jobs lost in Ontario and Quebec are not likely to come back at all.

So where are we nearly eight weeks after EI reform was put on the front burner of Canadian politics? It’s fair to say no real progress has been made. It took nearly a month for the two Conservative MPs on the panel, Pierre Poilievre and Diane Finley, to agree to a meeting.

Discussion at the first meeting centred on the Liberal proposal of a national standard of eligibility for benefits at 360 hours worked while the recovery persists. Despite having agreed to work on this proposal, following the meeting Conservative participants publicly rejected the standard while failing to propose an alternative.

Meeting two was even less satisfactory. Discussions around costing the proposal disintegrated even as media were provided a document leaked by “Conservative officials” with highly questionable numbers. Conservative members of the panel have provided no proposals of their own on which the group could work or make progress. Not on improvements to make eligibility fairer across the country, and not on the question of self-employed workers, a Conservative campaign commitment in the last election.

The next meeting is set to take place tomorrow. With four weeks left until MPs return to Parliament, there is still time for progress to be made. And why is progress so important? What does it matter?
If you are one of 150,000 Canadians who have paid into the employment insurance system and lost your job due to this recession before you accumulated enough hours to qualify for benefits, it may mean the difference between getting the temporary assistance you need to pay your bills while you find your next job, and turning to social assistance instead.

For families struggling to make ends meet when someone loses a job, the unfairness of not qualifying for coverage because of where you live adds insult to the injury of a job lost due to a recession.

With 58 different standards across the country, there are communities where one person is eligible for benefits while her neighbour across the street with the same number of hours worked will not qualify. This makes no sense, as the Prime Minister admitted back in June.

This is why many of Canada’s premiers have supported the call for a single national standard for EI eligibility. They are joined by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, the Canadian Labour Congress, TD Bank economists and the C.D. Howe Institute, among others.

If Canada is to rebuild its economy, create new enterprises and develop new sectors to replace those that have devolved, we need all of the effort, all of the ingenuity and all of the men and women in our workforce returned to employment. We cannot afford to leave anyone behind.

For these reasons, Liberals will return to the next meeting of the EI Working Group tomorrow in the hope that the Conservatives will start to take the plight of jobless workers more seriously.

If they don’t, Canadian families hurt by the recession will keep paying the price right now, and we will all be worse off in the long run.

Marlene Jennings and Mike Savage are Liberal members of the Employment Insurance Working Group.

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