Hot! What happens when EI runs out?

TheStar.com – Opinion
February 15, 2010.   Carol Goar

The thing that amazes Laurell Ritchie is that the laid-off autoworkers she meets every day haven’t given up hope.

They know their jobs are gone forever. They’ve exhausted their employment insurance benefits. They’ve maxed out their credit cards. They’ve written off the possibility of a comfortable retirement. But they still believe – somehow – they’ll get back on their feet.

“They, in fact, do see green shoots,” Ritchie, national representative for the Canadian Auto Workers, told a roomful of downcast anti-poverty activists in Toronto last week.

But she added a warning.

Half a million other jobless workers will exhaust their EI benefits this year. But, unlike the autoworkers, they won’t have a large severance settlement to fall back on. They won’t have a union to support them as they battle the self-doubt, depression and family tensions that come with long-term unemployment. And they’ll discover – as many autoworkers already have – that welfare isn’t as easy to get as they thought. To qualify for a monthly allowance of $585, applicants must deplete their savings and sell off their assets.

Ninety per cent will reject that option.

Beyond that, little is known about EI exhaustees. The federal government tracks the number, but won’t release it, claiming it is unreliable. The provinces and municipalities track welfare caseloads, but their statistics provide little information about the long-term unemployed. (The labour movement came up with its figures by piecing together information from various sources.)

These recession victims were largely ignored in Ottawa’s stimulus package. The 2009 federal budget extended EI benefits for a mere five weeks. Last September, to alleviate public pressure, the government added a 5-to-20-week top-up for older workers.

To put this in perspective, Washington increased its maximum entitlement to two years (double Canada’s) in hard-hit states. In most European countries, workers who exhaust their jobless benefits move into follow-up programs that offer training, counselling and modest, but not penurious, income support.

The governing Conservatives boycotted last week’s Recession Relief forum. So Ritchie tried to pin down the three opposition politicians who attended the town hall on what parties would do.

Liberal MP Derek Lee was circumspect. “It’s going to require a reworking of the EI program,” he said. “My party supports a thorough review to rework the program.” He estimated this review would take a year.

New Democrat Tony Martin was encouraging, but vague. He assured the audience that pressure is building in Ottawa to rethink the underpinnings of the Canadian economy. The combined voices of the provinces, unions, church groups, community activists and the opposition parties cannot be ignored, he said. “I’m hopeful, within the not-too-distant future, we, as a society, will take responsibility for each other.”

Green candidate Rebecca Harrison said her party would reduce EI premiums by one-third – the Conservatives intend to raise them next year – and provide generous support for the long-term unemployed. She didn’t explain how it would pay for this scheme.

Ritchie, determined to exact a tangible commitment, asked the Liberal and NDP representatives whether their parties would form a coalition to press for meaningful EI reform, with the support of the Bloc Québécois.

Lee displayed little enthusiasm for the idea. “We probably don’t need a coalition to do it. The three opposition parties have the votes. We may work more closely together than we originally thought.”

Martin dodged the question entirely, promising that he and his NDP colleagues would table private member’s bills on poverty eradication, housing, pensions and social assistance.

EI exhaustees are by no means the worst-off victims of the recession. But their plight provides an early glimpse of what Canadians can expect from Ottawa, as they face as a long, debilitating job drought.

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