EI woes: Canada's unemployed continue to be ignored

September 24, 2009

Memo from the Prime Minister’s Office to Canada’s unemployed: it sucks to be you.

After waiting an entire summer for Harper’s minority government to finally agree to fix Canada’s inadequate Employment Insurance (EI) system – which the government did only when its electoral back was up against the wall – unemployed Canadians are still mostly out of luck.

The latest changes to EI to be allowed by Prime Minister Harper do almost nothing for the shock troops of the labour market, those who were first felled by the worst economic downturn to hit Canada since the Great Depression.

Bill C-50 is a resounding bust for those who got laid off last year, whose benefits already ran out or are running out just about now.

It didn’t seem that way last week. On the first day back after Parliament’s summer break, in a political climate bursting with triggers for another election, the Harper government promised additional help for unemployed long-tenured workers.

A lot of Canadians breathed a sigh of relief. Many thousands of Canadians who had been working most of their lives before they got laid off have already run out of benefits before finding another sustaining job in their community. Many more are about to run out. The majority of Canadians, employed or unemployed, are wondering how they are going to make ends meet.

So this news – long overdue and seriously limited in its scope -- was welcome.

Unfortunately, the new legislation falls far short of the help Minister Finley led Canadians to believe was coming.

  • No Canadian who was laid off before January 2009 will qualify for this additional support. This despite the fact that the financial crisis hit in October 2008, and many Canadians in the forestry and manufacturing industries were laid off before that date.
  • Most Canadians won’t get anywhere near 20 weeks of extra help. They could get as little as two weeks extra help tacked on at the back end of their benefit period – the amount of time that was proposed, a year ago, to be eliminated from the waiting period at the front end of benefits.
  • To qualify for the full extension of benefits, Canadians must be employed and paying 30% of the maximum annual contribution for 12 of the last 15 years.
  • Even Canadians who have been steadily employed for a long time and have not claimed EI for the past five or more years may not qualify for the maximum duration of help. If they worked part-time or casual hours (the plight of many Canadians who are just waiting for that opening in the full-time job department) they haven’t paid enough into the kitty and will be ignored in this recession.
  • Canadians working in sectors that periodically lay off workers for the purposes of retooling, maintenance, or inventory rebalancing are deemed responsible for their reliance on EI, and not worthy of additional support.

There is a strange and cruel imbalance at play in Canada today.

The crime of being found guilty of unemployment comes with a hefty financial penalty – no help from the national unemployment insurance system – but if you almost collapse the financial sector you get a government bailout.

Meanwhile, the Harper government is into serious game playing on Parliament Hill with this new Bill. Every extra day parliamentary committees spend discussing ways to improve the legislation will mean fewer people will qualify for any extra help.

It’s just another way that the minority Harper government is telling Opposition members – and Canadians -- “it’s our way or the highway”. The sobering thing is that polls suggest that highway could lead to a Conservative majority government. If this is how they operate in a minority, watch out for the liberties they will take in a majority situation.

Bill C-50 is deeply flawed. It pits different categories of the unemployed against one another. It even pits people who find themselves in the same boat against one other if they don’t comply with the Conservative view of when the recession will be over – September 11, 2010.

But it is widely expected that, even if the economy shows other signs of recovery, unemployment will continue to rise throughout 2010.

This legislation guarantees that Parliamentarians will be back at the table in a year’s time, haggling over whether these marginal improvements are still needed or if the recession is actually over.

The Conservatives are again playing Parliament like a fiddle but, sadly, their music is resoundingly out of tune with what Canada’s recession-weary unemployed are going through.

Memo to the PMO: History proves minority governments can produce durable improvements for Canadians. This is no game. A little less political strategy and a little more focus on the real challenges facing Canadians will get Parliament working again in no time.

Armine Yalnizyan is a senior economist with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.