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EI changes fail to garner experts' praise

From Wednesday's Globe and Mail

OTTAWA — Jobless Canadians will be able to tap into employment insurance for a longer period of time, and more of them will qualify for taxpayer-funded training under the provisions of the new federal budget.

But the EI benefit level, which has fallen over the years to 55 per cent of earnings from 75 per cent, has not been increased. And the geographical inequities, which require a person in Ottawa, Toronto or Vancouver to work more hours than someone in parts of Atlantic Canada before they can collect EI, have not been addressed.

“We keep telling this government that less than 40 per cent of unemployed workers qualified to collect under the rules they have,” said Ken Georgetti, the president of the Canadian Labour Congress.

“What do you say to that 61 per cent or 63 per cent of workers that don't qualify for EI?”

The 2009 budget provides $8.3-billion over two years for what the government calls its Canadian Skills and Transition Strategy.

“We need to help Canadians who are out of work to find new, good jobs,” Finance Minister Jim Flaherty said in his budget speech Tuesday.

In fact, more than half of the money – $4.5-billion over the next two years – will be used to freeze EI premiums in 2009 and 2010.

And many of the changes to the employment insurance system that economists and unions recommended have been ignored.

The amount of time that Canadians must spend on the job to qualify for EI currently ranges from 420 hours to 910 hours, depending on the applicants' labour history and where they live. The qualifying period is longer in places where unemployment is lower.

Some experts have recommended that the period be made uniform across the country, a measure they say would provide significant economic stimulus. The Canadian Labour Congress, for instance, has suggested that everyone be required to work for 360 hours before qualifying for EI.

The government chose not to take that advice. Nor did it bump up benefit rates to 60 per cent of insurable earnings, another recommendation of labour groups. The EI fund currently pays 55 per cent of earnings, to a maximum of $447 a week.

Paul Moist, president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, said auto workers wanted the two-week waiting period for EI benefits to be waived. “We didn't get that,” he said.

But Ottawa has taken steps to reduce the pain of those who lose their jobs. Total employment across Canada fell by 105,000 jobs in November and December, and the unemployment rate increased to 6.6 per cent in December, its highest level in almost three years.

The budget extends the amount of time that a person can collect EI to 50 weeks from 45, which is predicted to substantially reduce the number of jobless who exhaust their claims – as well as trimming the amount that provinces must pay in social assistance. That measure will cost the government a predicted $575-million a year.

The budget, as predicted, is also heavily focused on retraining.

It offers an additional $500-million a year to extend existing labour market agreements with the provinces, $250-million a year to help unemployed workers who do not qualify for EI retraining programs, and $250-million a year to retrain 10,000 long-time workers in industries that have been particularly hard hit by the recession.

The Canadian Association of Community Colleges applauded the proposed investments in retraining.

A plan for troubled times

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