In the face of steep job losses and a battering recession, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Friday his government won't ease eligibility rules for unemployment benefits.
Harper, who was in Calgary to announce $100 million in funding for the southeast ring road project, called demands from opposition parties to reduce the work period required for employment insurance(EI) aid to 360 hours absurd.
The Alberta government is also seeking reduced qualifying hours for the province's growing pool of laid-off workers. Alberta's jobless rate rose to six per cent last month, its highest level in seven years.
Harper, however, suggested he's not willing to make further changes to the federal program, noting benefits have been extended by five weeks and Ottawa has invested significant dollars in training.
"They(opposition parties) are suggesting that what we should do is bring in an EI system where any Canadian in anywhere in the country in perpetuity could work 45 days and collect EI benefits for a period up to a year.This is an absurdity. It is not responsible," the prime minister said.
"This has nothing to do with the real problems of this recession. This is just a recipe to raise payroll taxes."
The number of work hours needed to qualify for EI varies across the country, from 420 hours to 700 hours, depending on the health of a region's employment.
Albertans require the most hours to qualify, based in part on a jobless rate that was once the lowest in the country.
The Stelmach government has been lobbying Ottawa for equity in EI rules. Along with easing eligibility rules, it wants the Harper government to further extend how long Canadians can collect unemployment benefits.
"We're just saying that as conditions may change . . . we (should) get equal or close to equal recognition of some of the EI program," Stelmach said.
Federal opposition parties have threatened to force an election over the EI issue.
In an opinion piece written for publication in newspapers, Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff contends Canada's employment insurance system "wasn't built for a national crisis of this scope."
"More than 40 per cent of the unemployed in this country aren't eligible for EI, even though they have paid into the system. As a result, Canadians aren't getting the help they need when they need it," he wrote.
The Liberals want the Harper minority government to introduce a national 360-hour standard for EI eligibility during the recession. The party proposes to cover the added cost of benefits through general revenues and keep payroll taxes frozen.
"The distortions produced by the current EI rules are striking," Ignatieff added in his open letter.
"Unemployment is up 83 per cent in Alberta and 68 per cent in British Columbia --but it's still twice as hard to qualify for EI in Western Canada as it is elsewhere in the country."
Pressure to change the insurance program is also coming from union groups.
Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan accused Harper of using EI as a wedge issue in the run-up to a possible federal election.
"What's being lost in this approach is the fact that the unemployment insurance system is simply not up to the task of helping Canadians through this recession," McGowan said.
"The employment insurance system should be there for workers when they lose their jobs no matter where they live, whether it's Calgary or Cape Breton."
Calgary Herald, Sat May 23 2009
Byline: Renata d'Aliesio