Alberta's unemployment rate rose to 7.2 per cent in July--a high not seen since June 1996, said Statistics Canada, which released unexpectedly grim labour market news Friday.
Canada lost 45,000 jobs--more than feared. Most economists were predicting 20,000 job losses in July.
Alberta lost 3,700 jobs compared to June, while the province's labour force increased by 5,600 in July as jobseekers moved to the province.
The number of full-time workers fell by 11,900 in Alberta; those working part-time increased by 8,100-- another sign economists say points to a weakening labour market.
"The current weakness in conventional oil and gas drilling, as well as the sharp retrenchment in construction and manufacturing activity, has left many companies no choice but to cut payrolls," said ATB Financial senior economist Todd Hirsch.
Job losses in Alberta will only get worse in the next few months, he predicted.
"Labour indicators ... are well-known to lag conditions in the overall economy. So even if the recession appears to be losing its grip, we don't expect the jobs market to reach a bottom until sometime in the fall or early winter."
Premier Ed Stelmach is confident oil and gas drilling incentives introduced this year will keep some Albertans from joining the unemployment ranks.
"The numbers are increasing more than originally predicted, and it's very concerning to me," he said.
"But I can assure all Albertans that we will maintain all the programs that are necessary to look after those who not only lost their jobs, but look at how we also can get them back into the workforce."
Alberta's unemployment rate could see improvement in September when many jobseekers leave the labour market for school or training, said Sally Stuike, a spokeswoman for Alberta Employment and Immigration.
"We are hopeful and optimistic that the jobless rate here in Alberta will improve," she said, noting the latest statistics at least show an increase in part-time jobs.
As well, the overall job picture wasn't bad in all parts of Alberta. The Lethbridge-Medicine Hat area's unemployment rate remained unchanged from June to July at 5.5 per cent. The Banff-Jasper-Rocky Mountain House area remained at 5.9 per cent. Wood Buffalo-Cold Lake's jobless rate actually declined to 5.4 per cent in July from six per cent a month earlier.
Compared to the same time a year earlier, there were 51,100 more people in Alberta's labour force--an increase the provincial government and economists attribute to an influx of people from other parts of Canada.
Meanwhile, since July 2008 Alberta has shed 26,100 jobs.
Between June 2009 and July 2009, finance, insurance, real estate and leasing sectors lost 7,600 jobs. Accommodation and food services lost 4,600 jobs in the same period.
Alberta maintained Canada's third-lowest jobless rate, behind Saskatchewan at 4.7 per cent and Manitoba at 5.2 per cent.
But since last fall, Alberta has been the hardest hit by job losses, said one economist.
"While the national jobless rate has climbed by 2.3 percentage points since the onset of the recession in October 2008, unemployment has surged the most in Alberta (a gain of 3.5 percentage points), Newfoundland (plus 3.3), British Columbia (plus 2.6) and Ontario (plus 2.6)," said Pascal Gauthier, an economist with TD Bank Financial Group.
The national unemployment rate remained flat in July at 8.6 per cent as some jobless stopped looking for work, the federal agency said. The country lost 45,000 jobs full-and part-time jobs in July.
"The current recession's job loss tally now sits at 414,000, or 2.4 per cent, and keeps inching closer to that experienced in the early 1990s recession (3.3 per cent)," Gauthier said.
"No one said it was going to be a smooth recovery, and especially not for employment," said Douglas Porter, deputy chief economist with BMO Capital Markets, which had been expecting something in the range of 30,000 job losses in July.
"The underlying picture still looks quite soft, and there's little sign here that the economy is quickly turning the corner."
Most job cuts Canada-wide were in the accommodation, food services and construction sectors, while the retail and wholesale trade sectors added workers.
Seven per cent
In Edmonton, the unemployment rate inched up to seven per cent in July, up from 6.5 per cent in June. Calgary's rate also rose, to 6.9 per cent from seven per cent. The economic region in Alberta with the highest unemployment rate was Athabasca-Grande Prairie at 8.4 per cent; the lowest was Wood Buffalo-Cold Lake at 5.4 per cent.
Alberta's latest jobless increase prompted Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan to call on provincial and territorial leaders to pressure Ottawa for swift reform of the national employment insurance system.
"Albertans are losing jobs at a faster pace than workers in most other provinces," McGowan said. "But the system that is supposed to provide a safety net is failing us miserably. Only about 40 per cent of Alberta's unemployed are getting EI benefits --the lowest rate in the country."
The AFL and other labour groups want a uniform system of EI eligibility to replace the current system that requires people to work different numbers of hours to qualify for benefits depending on which region of the country they live.
"We think it's nothing short of a scandal that a prime minister from Calgary continues to drag his feet when it comes to EI reform, even when Albertans are the ones who are being the most discriminated against."
Edmonton Journal, Sat Aug 8 2009
Byline: Bill Mah
Dramatic jump in Alberta jobless rate underlines need for much quicker action on EI reform, says AFL
REGINA-As Alberta's unemployment rate soars to levels not seen since the recession of the early 90s, the need for fundamental reform to Canada's Employment Insurance system becomes even clearer and more urgent, says the leader of Alberta's largest labour organization.
"Albertans are losing jobs at a faster pace than workers in most other provinces," says Gil McGowan. "But the system that is supposed to provide a safety net is failing us miserably. Only about 40 per cent of Alberta's unemployed are getting EI benefits - the lowest rate in the country. And even when Albertans do receive benefits, they're eligible for fewer weeks than workers in other provinces. This kind of discrimination needs to end."
McGowan and other labour federation leaders are in Regina this week to lobby the Ed Stelmach and other provincial and territorial premiers as they gather for their annual premiers meeting.
The labour leaders' campaign for EI reform took on an increased sense of urgency today as the latest official unemployment numbers were released.
Figures released this morning by Statistics Canada show that Alberta lost another 9,300 jobs in July, bringing the province's total of net-jobs lost since October 2008 to 75,600. As a result, Alberta's official unemployment rate has jumped to 7.2 - the highest it's been since 1995.
Alberta actually lost 11,900 full-time jobs in July - but this was offset somewhat by an increase in precarious part-time work. The province's unemployment rate has now nearly doubled in the past 8 months (from 3.7 per cent in October 2008 to 7.2 per cent today).
"The employment picture in Alberta is more dismal than it's been in years - and despite happy talk from politicians and business leaders, it's continuing to get worse," says McGowan. "That's why we're calling on the premiers and federal government to fix our country's broken EI system immediately. Unemployed workers need help now, not six months or a year from now."
The AFL, other provincial and territorial labour federations and the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) are calling for a uniform system of EI eligibility to replace the current system that requires people to work different numbers of hours to qualify for benefits depending on which region of the country they live in. The labour movement is also calling for increases to benefit levels and to the length of time that unemployed workers can collect benefits.
"It shouldn't matter if Canadians lose their jobs in Calgary or Cape Breton - people who have lost their jobs should get the unemployment benefits they've paid for," says McGowan. "The best way to help Canadians weather this economic storm and boost the broader economy is to put money in the pockets of those who have lost their jobs. That's why we need EI reform now. The system isn't delivering on its promise - and Canadians are suffering needlessly as a result."
For more information call: Gil McGowan, AFL President @ (780) 218-9888
The Canadian Labour Congress says new job numbers show the recession if far from over for workers.
Statistics Canada says the country's labour market shed another 45,000 jobs in July as more people struggled to find work.
Labour groups want a uniform system of EI eligibility to replace the current system that requires people to work different numbers of hours to qualify for benefits depending on where they live.
The Alberta and Saskatchewan federations of labour are also calling for EI changes.
AFL President Gil McGowan says only about 40 per cent of Alberta's unemployed are getting EI benefits - the lowest rate in the country.
570 News, Kitchener, On, Fri Aug 7 2009
The stats, which were released this morning, show Canada's jobless rate stayed steady at 8.6 percent.
But here in Alberta it rose nearly half a percent to 7.2 and in Calgary it jumped from 6.6 to 6.9 percent. The AFL says only 40% of the Albertans applying for EI are actually receiving the cash they need.
AFL president Gil McGowan says the reason for the low eligibility is because of regional differences in the current system.
He adds it's not fair that a person in Calgary and a person in Cape Breton aren't getting the same help even though both have lost their jobs and both have put the same amount of money into the system.
660AM News, Calgary, Fri Aug 7 2009
Cormac MacSweeney and Kelly Turner
That includes addressing the issue of job cuts at the two companies, which employ about 12,500 people. In an exclusive interview with the Herald, George candidly admitted there will be layoffs, but refused to say how many.
"I don't want to commit to a number and have to change it later. I expect to be in a position to tell you in two to three weeks," he said.
"What I've told employees is that they'll know first. As an employee, that's about respect. What I'm trying to do is humanize this process."
While most Albertans were enjoying the long weekend, the new CEO of the combined Suncor and Petro-Canada was poring over reams of data and figuring out ways to assemble the individual pieces of Canada's largest integrated oil major, which officially came into existence at the stroke of midnight on Friday.
"You have to remember, until Friday, there were parts of these companies that we couldn't have access to," he said.
"There are sections that we did not have access to data."
"What we haven't had time to do is to take a really good look around at what may or may not fit," George said.
The final shape of the company will be determined over the next 100 days or so, when George and his new management team will decide which assets will form the basis of the merged company, whether to keep Petro-Canada's international operations and what development projects will take priority.
In addition, it will be required to sell 104 retail gasoline outlets in southern Ontario, in accordance with the Competition Bureau's July 22 decision to formally approve the $20-billion merger with conditions.
In late September or early October, George will present a capital budget to Suncor's board of directors that is expected to eliminate some $1 billion of direct spending and $300 million of operating expenditures.
That document will indirectly address the issue of job cuts as the companies seek to streamline administration and staffing levels.
The Suncor CEO has been meeting with groups of employees to outline a strategy in what he described as an attempt to "humanize" the process of eliminating positions.
"What we told employees is that everybody should know whether they have a position in this new company and, if so, what it is and, if not, when they will be leaving the company."
Last week Petro-Canada chopped about 50 senior executive and managerial positions ahead of the formal closing of the merger on Friday.
But Gil McGowan, who heads the Alberta Federation of Labour, said the various unions that operate Petro-Canada's Edmonton refinery and Suncor's Fort McMurray upgrader have been assured there will be no layoffs for unionized hourly employees.
"In these mergers it tends to be executives and senior managers that become redundant," McGowan said.
"We're not anticipating any significant layoffs among hourly employees. Regardless of the corporate structure, the newly expanded company is going to need the same number of people to run the refinery and the upgrader."
Levi Clarke, who heads Local 707 of the Communications Energy and Paperworkers union, which represents 2,900 oilsands workers in Fort McMurray, said Suncor officials assured him there would be no job cuts at the mine or upgrader.
"They talked to us very early," he said. "It's a good thing to know that your members aren't going to be affected by such a big undertaking."
Shares of the new company began trading in New York on Monday, where they promptly gained seven per cent. On Tuesday they lost 71 cents US to finish the day at $33.94. The Canadian shares will begin trading in Toronto later this week. On Tuesday they each gained about five per cent on the Toronto Stock Exchange; Suncor gained $1.60 Cdn to close at $36.44 while Petro-Canada jumped $2.20 to $46.69.
Justin Bouchard, an oilsands analyst with Raymond James in Calgary, said Suncor — as the largest Canadian energy company, with a market capitalization of about $40 billion — is now a "must-own" for institutions and investment funds. "The only question is whether you're overweight or underweight," he said.
Calgary Herald, Tues Aug 4 2009
Byline: Shaun Polczer
Suncor CEO mum on upgrader expansion: Strong U.S. demand for heavy oil has pushed company delay completion of Voyageur project
But with little more than a week remaining until he takes the reins of the newly merged Suncor, chief executive officer Rick George remained coy on how long the company would take to bring to life its 200,000 barrel-per-day Voyageur upgrader expansion, which is designed to process the bitumen it produces. Voyageur was scheduled to be built by 2012, but construction was halted in January.
Work has already begun to prepare for resumption of another halted Suncor project, its Firebag 3 oil sands plant, which was half-built when workers were called away in January amid a dramatic move to slash capital spending. Suncor has authorized contractors to finish building a camp and administration building, ahead of an expected green light for that project, which is likely later this year.
And Mr. George said the company will be able to switch on the Voyageur expansion in short order when it so chooses. But, he told analysts on a second-quarter earnings call Wednesday, "initially, we want to be bitumen long."
That means the company intends to produce more bitumen than it is capable of upgrading, turning instead to U.S. refiners to do work it has traditionally done itself. Voyageur will be restarted at some point, but not until Suncor, which is scheduled to complete its merger with Petro-Canada PCA-T by Aug. 1, has a chance to evaluate where it fits in among its broad suite of projects, Mr. George said.
An upgrader is a kind of pre-refinery that takes the thick, heavy oil sands bitumen and transforms it into a product capable of being made into end products like gasoline.
"There's no need to build the upgrader if there's no bitumen to fill it," Mr. George said. "We continue to see very good pull from customers in the U.S. refineries for heavy oil from Canada. So I expect that to be a fairly good strategy over the next four or five years."
Significant drops in heavy oil exports from Venezuela and Mexico have left U.S. refiners scrambling to fill their capacity, driving up the price for a commodity that used to trade at a 30 per cent discount to light crude oil. In recent months, heavy oil has halved that gap, and on at least one day earlier this month was worth more than light crude – a circumstance some observers have never before seen.
Strong heavy oil pricing damages the profitability of upgraders. Still, contractors and business leaders in Fort McMurray have long expected Voyageur to resume construction in coming months. But Mr. George did not make clear whether he intends to restart Voyageur soon – it will take at least three years to finish building it – or whether the project will be delayed.
"We haven't determined yet when we will restart it," he said.
But BMO Nesbitt Burns analyst Randy Ollenberger said Mr. George may be "making a straight bet that he's going to make more money as a bitumen producer and pushing [Voyageur] off."
"He seemed to be backing away from [Voyageur]," Mr. Ollenberger said. "I'd be very surprised if they don't complete it [at some point]. I think it's more a question of timing. And maybe it makes more sense for them to remain a bitumen producer for the next five or six years, so defer that capital until it makes more sense."
That prospect angers labour groups, who see the export of unprocessed bitumen as the export of provincial jobs.
"If a stalwart energy company like Suncor is thinking of heading south, then chances are that almost all other energy companies are having similar thoughts," said Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan. "And frankly, that's bad news for everyone who works in the energy sector."
Still, others believe Suncor could simply export bitumen from its expanding oil sands operations during the time it builds Voyageur – a prospect that would leave its original plans little changed.
"They'd still have to sanction [Voyageur] in short order to get it on stream in the next four-year time frame," said UBS Securities analyst Andrew Potter.
Globe and Mail, Wed July 22 2009
Byline: Nathan VanderKlippe
Premier's vow of no tax hikes spurs fear of deep cuts: Economist forecasts deficit of more than $7 billion
While the premier suggested most provincial government departments can stand a "haircut," some groups fear the governments could be forced to axe programs or cut or freeze wages to balance the books.
Economist Jack Mintz said the financial picture is likely going to be worse than the forecasted$4.7-billion deficit. That's because natural gas prices are two dollars less than the budget estimate. For every 10 cents the price falls below the estimate, $126 million is lost.
"I wouldn't be surprised if we're looking at a deficit of more than $7 billion," he said. "There's more downside than upside risk."
Mintz, who teaches at the University of Calgary, said this year's deficit alone could eat up nearly half of the province's savings.
Liberal MLA Hugh MacDonald said the government will have to conjure up some magic to balance the budget without tax hikes. The Liberals tried unsuccessfully to introduce amendments that would have cut nearly $50 million from the budget.
"The government is not going to find $2 billion under a mattress somewhere," Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan said. "If they want to balance their budget with cuts alone, there will be deep cuts and they will have a huge impact. "
McGowan said such cuts may balance the books in the short term, but will cripple programs for years.
"It's bad news for those who represent public-sector workers and it's bad news for all Albertans. A return to Klein-style cuts is not in anyone's best interests."
Alberta Treasury Board president Lloyd Snelgrove predicted earlier this week that if tax increases were off the table, there would have to be a cut of at least 15 per cent to health care, education and social programs, and infrastructure spending would have to be cut 30 per cent. But Snelgrove was much more optimistic Wednesday after the premier made his declaration there would be no tax increases.
"We have to really sharpen our pencils," Snelgrove said. "We need to go back. We'll be sending targets out to the different departments sooner than later."
He said the government was "spending a little too much," but it now had to be careful it didn't cut too deeply. "We don't want to swing the pendulum past the point where we do damage to what in many cases are very good systems."
The Canadian Taxpayers Federation says cuts can be made without destroying programs.
"This is the biggest spending government in Canada, next to Newfoundland, on a per-capita basis," said Alberta director Scott Hennig.
"I don't think other provinces live in constant chaos just because they don't spend as much as we do."
Grant MacEwan political studies expert Chaldeans Mensah said Stelmach is taking a big risk with his vow not to increase personal or corporate taxes. In the short term, the promise will shore up the premier's support among fiscal Conservatives, with a leadership review looming this fall, Mensah said.
"In a sense, he has boxed himself into a corner and he has to be hopeful that economic conditions improve," Mensah said. "This will be a very telling moment for Ed Stelmach. He has set the stage for what will be a clear basis for judging him and making a very definitive judgment on his performance."
NDP MLA Rachel Notley called the vow "a blatant political ploy."
She added that Stelmach's decision to reverse the liquor taxes in the April budget that would have brought in $180 million was "incredibly irresponsible and thoughtless."
David Eggen, executive director of the Friends of Medicare, said Stelmach is "playing a dangerous game" and every cut he makes to social programs will be measured against his decision to reverse the tax on liquor. "He is lowering alcohol taxes when seniors will be paying more for prescriptions next year," he said. "It seems like he doesn't have his priorities straight."
Edmonton Journal, Thurs July 9 2009
Byline: Darcy Henton
And to prove the point, he's rescinding a tax on liquor, brought in just a few months ago, that boosted the price of a dozen beer by $1.30, and a bottle of spirits by $2.89.
But, an Alberta labour leader isn't impressed. Gil McGowan, the president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, fears Stelmach's inflexible position could spell massive job cuts across the province.
iNews880.com, Wed July 8 2009
Faced with mixed messages from his own cabinet and rampant speculation about how the government will curb a soaring deficit, he said Tuesday that while he's in charge, any budget shortfall won't come from taxpayers or businesses.
"As long as I'm premier of this province, there will be no tax increases, simple," he said following a cabinet meeting. "You cannot tax your way out of a recession, and we're not going to do that."
That promise applies to both corporate and personal taxes, as well as to the idea of introducing a sales tax in the province. The government is even rescinding a tax on liquor, brought in just a few months ago, that boosted the price of a dozen beers by $1.30 and a bottle of spirits by $2.89.
The rollback will cost $180 million annually but it's the right way to go to prove the point, said Stelmach.
"It was something that I had a hard time agreeing with, it's been bothering me all that time," he said. "When we say no tax increases, it's no tax increases, period."
An increase on cigarettes brought in at the same time as the liquor tax will stand for now because it's tied up in health and gang issues that go beyond a normal tax, he said.
The head of Alberta's largest union said he feared Stelmach's inflexible position could spell massive job cuts across the province.
"We're deeply disappointed by the premier's comments, because they signal a return to the bad old days of (former premier Ralph) Klein cuts, and that's not good for anyone in the province," said Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour.
Klein cut thousands of jobs to help pull the province out of debt during the 1990s during the last recession, creating a shortage of health-care workers that is still felt in the province today, said McGowan.
"Hearing the premier's comments today frankly has dashed our hopes," he said. "All that's left, if he's going to take that kind of inflexible position, is a return to deep cuts."
While hiking taxes should be a last resort, it should still be an option for a government to consider, said Alberta Liberal finance critic Dave Taylor.
Many people have suggested that a funding shortfall would have to be balanced by both raising taxes and government job cuts. Cutting out taxes doesn't leave many other options, said Taylor.
"Apparently that can only mean spending cuts now. And we know that the last time the Conservatives went on a slash-and-burn spending cut exercise that they did a lot of damage."
Even more confusing is the reversal on the liquor tax, he said.
"Well, sir, you were the premier. It was on your watch that this tax increase happened. If you weren't in favour of it from the get-go, why did it ever happen?"
The day after releasing the April budget, Finance Minister Iris Evans suggested raising taxes hadn't been ruled out to help deal with an anticipated $2 billion shortfall. Other ministers have echoed that suggestion in recent days.
"I've got a list of quotes from various ministers who have been saying since April, since the day after the budget that they're going to be looking at tax increases, they absolutely have to look at increases, we're going to be seeing it coming, it's likely to happen," said Scott Hennig, director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation.
Hennig added he's thrilled to see the premier make such a blanket statement, but now wants to see the government cut wasteful spending to make up the shortfall.
"This is the most bloated, biggest spending government in Canada - second only on a per-person level to Newfoundland."
The premier acknowledged the province is facing tough economic times amid low commodity prices and a global financial crisis.
The government ran an $852 million deficit last fiscal year, and at least one finance spokesman has conceded there could be up to a $7 billion shortfall this year.
But Stelmach said the way to deal with the recession is to offer incentives to companies, not for the government to collect more money through taxes.
"We have to continue to work to reduce the cost of doing business in the province. That's the way you build Alberta's future and I can tell you Albertans expect confidence and stability in these very, very difficult economic times, and that is my focus."
Stelmach also introduced changes to the provincial Crown bank ATB Financial that will let it expand its lending capacity by up $15 billion, guaranteed by the government.
The premier said he's made his position on taxation clear to his entire cabinet and also wants municipalities to know they shouldn't rely on the government to take in any extra money.
"This will send a message to other levels of government - start tightening up your budgets."
AM1150, Tues July 7 2009
At 23, she had never been laid off before. She was a full-time administrator at a pension company in Calgary until mid-March and thought she'd find a new job easily.
But with Alberta's economy sinking deeper into recession, Eide, a single mother of a toddler with no savings to help her, soon found herself evicted from her rental home, dependent on handouts from her family until her first unemployment cheque arrived.
"Ten weeks was way too long to wait. How is anybody going to survive?" she said.
Aside from financially straining laid-off workers, Employment and Immigration Minister Hector Goudreau said Alberta's average 10-week wait--among the longest in the country--is putting pressure on provincial coffers, as more and more people without savings are turning to the welfare system for relief.
I n April, 523 Albertans waiting for EI were granted aid from Alberta Works welfare program, a 120 per cent spike from 238 in December. The federal government eventually reimburses the province for these funds.
"There is no reason why it should take 10 weeks. That's not acceptable," Goudreau said.
The length of time jobless Albertans are waiting for employment insurance is one of several reforms the provincial government is seeking to an "inequitable" federal program.
In a sense, the province's unprecedented economic growth, which stalled only months ago, is now handcuffing jobless Albertans.
Long EI waits are mainly due to federal government staffing levels based on boom-time jobless rates below four per cent. Ottawa is attempting to address this issue by adding staff and processing Albertans' applications in other provinces, but Goudreau said it's too soon to tell whether the delay is easing. (Human Resources and Skills Development, the federal department responsible for EI, did not respond Friday to questions about the delay.)
While the EI wait is frustrating many unemployed Albertans, a larger number of them don't even qualify for the insurance program funded by employers and employees.
Jobless Albertans, who face tougher eligibility rules than almost anyone else in the country because of the province's relatively low unemployment rate, are least likely to receive EI, according to statistics compiled by the Alberta Federation of Labour.
Of the 123,000 unemployed Albertans in March, only about one-third are receiving insurance benefits, compared to 46 per cent in British Columbia, 57 per cent in Quebec, and more than 90 per cent in Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland.
Meanwhile, Alberta's jobless rate has risen rapidly since the global economic downturn hit. In May, the rate jumped to 6.6 per cent, the highest level since October 1996 and a stark increase from 3.7 per cent in October.
The number of Albertans relying on the province's welfare program is also growing, to 34,143 in May, a 27 per cent increase from October.
Provincial disgruntlement with the federal EI program has been strongest in the West, while on the federal political stage, the Liberals have threatened to force an election over the issue.
Days after the Harper Conservatives and the Ignatieff Liberals agreed to create a working group to examine Canada's employment insurance system over the summer, a package of proposed reforms surfaced from Western premiers and territorial leaders at their annual meeting, held last week in Dawson City, Yukon.
They want the EI program streamlined from 58 regions to three -- urban, rural and remote -- and are calling for more equitable support regardless of where people live.
Currently, laid-off workers in regions with higher employment rates require more hours on the job to qualify for benefits than those living in areas with worse employment prospects.
The range varies from 420 hours to 700 hours. The length of EI payments also hinges on employment rates.
Premier Ed Stelmach views the system as a "transfer of wealth out of the West to Eastern Canada."
"Today there's quite a difference between the number of hours worked to qualify for EI in Eastern Canada compared to Western Canada, so that is a disparity," he told a radio talk show on Friday.
"An employed family is equally unemployed, whether they live in Nova Scotia, Quebec or in Alberta."
Last week's decision to create a federal EI working group concerns the Canadian Federation of Independent Business.
Spokesman Dan Kelly said small businesses want the federal opposition parties' proposal for a national eligibility standard of 360 hours off the table.
Kelly contends lowering the EI threshold will discourage unemployed people from looking for work or moving to regions with better job prospects, potentially exasperating labour shortages in the future.
The business group also has reservations about the Conservative government's desire to extend EI payments to self-employed Canadians.
"From a practical level, how is that even workable? How can you lay yourself off?" Kelly questioned.
Goudreau shares some of Kelly's reservations about potential EI reforms, saying a balance must be struck.
"We don't want to make employment insurance so good and so readily available that people don't want to go to work," Alberta's employment minister said.
Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan dismisses this notion, however. Given the choice between working or drawing on temporary EI benefits, McGowan believes most Canadians would choose to work.
McGowan supports adopting a 360-hour national standard. The union also wants the ceiling on benefits raised to 70 per cent of an employee's earnings.
"These are not handouts. This is money workers have set aside themselves to help through hard times," McGowan said.
"The problem is not that the benefits are too generous. The problem is there are not enough jobs to go around."
In Calgary, the city's growing ranks of jobless workers can be felt at the Calgary Workers' Resource Centre.
The centre helps workers file claims and appeals for employment insurance, worker compensation and human rights abuses.
It noticed a marked increase in the first three months of 2009 compared to the same period last year--269 claims and appeals versus 70 in 2008. EI issues make up 90 per cent of the files, said centre director Xavier Cattarinich.
Like McGowan, Cattarinich believes a lower, uniform qualifying threshold is needed.
He said bolstering Canada's EI system will help reduce poverty, crime and welfare cases.
"You can pay now or much more later down the road," he said.
As politicians squabble over EI reform, Heather Eide wonders how she and her young daughter will manage on $1,400 a month.
Her employment insurance cheque is less than half of what she was making at a Calgary pension company. Eide's monthly rent alone is $1,350 in the new home her mother helped secure after her eviction.
Eide's EI payments are set to end after 27 weeks.
"For how much I paid into EI over the years, it's totally not enough," she said.
"Nobody can live off $1,400 a month."
Eide hopes to find a job paying close to the $20-an-hour wage she once made, but she's not feeling optimistic.
She's noticed wages in her line of work have dropped to about $14 an hour.
"I have been applying to everything that has an income level that I need," she said. "The market is just so terrible right now. I'm not even getting calls back for jobs I don't want."
Calgary Herald, Mon Jun 21 2009
Byline: Renata D'aliesio