EI works against Alberta, says report: Inequitable system called 'perverse'

As the ranks of the unemployed in the province continue to swell, a new report suggests Alberta's workers are hit by an employment insurance double whammy: working longer hours to qualify for a shorter compensation period.

Alberta has seen a "dramatic" increase in the number of people who have lost their jobs this year, jumping to 160,000 from about 73,000 last year, said Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan on Monday.

"By itself it's alarming enough. What's even more disturbing to us is that only about 40 per cent of those people are eligible for benefits under the current system," said McGowan, attending a free barbecue in Calgary organized by local labour unions and associations.

"We have a very disturbing situation here in Alberta. Not only do Albertans have to work longer in order to be eligible for benefits, they also are eligible for benefits for shorter periods.

"This Labour Day, the story isn't about work, the real story is about unemployment."

Anthony Bajalo knows what it's like to look for work.

The construction labourer said after the heyday of big jobs and even bigger paycheques during boom time, work is drying up.

The 33-year-old has gone job hunting outside the city in Caroline and Sundre to find enough work to pay the bills. He recently lined up a job in Vancouver next month to work on infrastructure for the Winter Olympics.

"There are a lot of people looking for work. It's tough right now," said Bajalo.

"I've been to some places that have shut down in the middle of the jobs.

"It's tough being in a city that was booming, jobs left, right and centre. Then everything dries right up."

In Calgary on Monday, several volunteers from the Calgary and District Labour Council dished up burgers and hotdogs to a steady stream of people attending the barbecue at Olympic Plaza.

The Labour Day event is meant to give back to the community and highlight some of the worrisome activity in the economy, said Collin Anderson, interim president of the council.

"There's a definite concern that this economic downturn is being used by the corporations and companies to claw back gains that have been made over the years," he said.

More work hours, fewer benefits and changes to pensions are some of the key concerns, said Anderson.

"The workers truly have to be united now, it's the only strength we have, our solidarity and willingness to stand up for one another."

The Alberta Federation of Labour released a report this week outlining concerns about Canada's employment insurance system.

According to McGowan, workers in cities such as Montreal and Windsor, Ont., receive benefits for as long as 50 weeks, while in Alberta the maximum period is about 43 weeks.

Further, workers in Edmonton and Calgary have to work about 665 hours to qualify for EI, compared to about 560 hours in Montreal.

"All Canadians pay into the EI system at the same rate, but Albertans are having to work longer for fewer benefits than other Canadians," he said. "We think this is a perverse situation."

Alberta's robust workforce during happier times falls "further and faster" as the economy droops, said McGowan.

Employment insurance reforms could become a key national issue if a fall election materializes.

Some labour groups are calling for a national standard across the country.

Although EI is a federal responsibility, provincial leaders need to take a strong position on behalf of Alberta workers, said NDP Leader Brian Mason.

"It (EI) no longer serves the function it once did."

The federal government announced Monday it will institute new measures in the upcoming session of Parliament to help train and find new jobs for "long-tenured" employees who have been laid off.

Human Resources Minister Diane Finley said the provisions would be aimed at those who had been consistently employed for at least seven out of the past 10 years who "are finding themselves, through no fault of their own, unemployed with limited portable skills."

The minister said the "group who have been, frankly, hardest hit by the global recession," such as those in the automotive, manufacturing and forestry sectors, would be targeted for assistance.

The new measures follow a series of initiatives launched in May that allow for some long-tenured workers to claim up to two years of EI benefits so long as they use that time to train for new work.

As of June, 816,000 Canadians were receiving EI benefits, up more than 60 per cent from when the economy started dipping in October.

Parliament will resume sitting on Sept. 14.

Calgary Herald, Page B2, Tues Sept 8 2009
Byline: Jamie Komarnicki

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