Good Jobs for All Coalition

March 25, 2009 11:29 ET

Fundamentally Flawed EI Rules Must Be Fixed Now

New staff will be forced to deny claims until Harper government or Parliament lowers the threshold for EI benefits to 360 hours across Canada

TORONTO, ONTARIO--(Marketwire - March 25, 2009) - On Wednesday morning, hundreds of laid-off workers demonstrated outside of an Employment Insurance (EI) office at the Dufferin Mall in Toronto. It was the third rally to fix EI organised this month by the Good Jobs for All Coalition - an alliance of more than 35 community, labour and student groups representing people throughout the Greater Toronto Area.

The demonstration followed Statistics Canada's release of new data, on Tuesday, which confirms that less than one-third of unemployed people in Ontario are getting unemployment insurance. Demonstrators called this unacceptable because every worker pays into the EI fund while employed so that if their jobs are lost through no fault of their own, they will have guaranteed income until the job market improves.

"Prime Minister Harper and Minister Finley, we're putting you on notice that your half-measures and ignorance are unacceptable," said Winnie Ng, Co-chair of the Good Jobs For All Coalition. "We've been telling you, since before the budget in January, exactly what's wrong with the unemployment insurance system and you haven't bothered to fix it. EI isn't 'lucrative' for anyone and your inaction reveals a complete lack of empathy for everyone who has lost their job."

Fixing the Employment Insurance program's fundamental flaws will require:

- the qualifying threshold to be set at 360 hours worked for everyone across the country;

- benefits to be restored to at least 60% of the best 12 weeks of earnings; and

- the duration of benefits to be increased to 50 weeks for all workers in all regions with a one-year 'special extension' of benefits if unemployment exceeds 6.5% nationally.

Currently unemployed people in the GTA must meet the threshold of 595 hours worked in the previous 52 weeks to qualify for regular EI benefits. The threshold varies across Canada based on the unemployment rate of the EI economic region in which each applicant lives. Insufficient EI changes announced in the 2009 federal budget that were re-announced by The Hon. Diane Finley, Minister of Human Resource and Skills Development, again yesterday mean that EI recipients in the Toronto region can receive a maximum of only 47 weeks of benefits-if they've worked a full-time job for an entire year (1,820 hours worked). Many will get benefits for as few as 23 weeks.

"Since the government isn't doing it, we're calling on all members of this minority Parliament-including the official opposition-to stop the delay and pass legislation to make more people eligible today," said Carolyn Egan, President of the Steelworkers Toronto Area Council. "More staff to deal with EI applications is a good idea, but if the Harper government's employment strategy is to hire hundreds of people to deny their former co-workers' EI claims, the Prime Minister needs to look south of the border for better ideas. In the U.S., making sure more people get unemployment insurance has been prioritised as a way to deliver economic stimulus."

According to information from Statistics Canada, 265,000 people in the GTA were unemployed as of January 2009, however only 79,900 were getting EI benefits. This makes the coverage rate only 30%.

"Since December we've been seeing a new type of client, different from the majority of our food bank's regular users who are long-term recipients of social assistance or disability support," said Robert Thorpe, Executive Director of the Parkdale Community Food Bank. "It's very disturbing that one person after the other is coming in saying, 'I just lost my job and I'm not getting EI'. They come in with zero income because there are no jobs for them and EI is failing them. With a $57 billion EI surplus, the federal government is much better resourced to help them than we are."

As of March 31, 2008, the Receiver General for Canada reported that the surplus in the federal government's EI account has reached $56.9 billion, an increase of $6.2 billion since the Harper government was elected in 2006.

"There are at least a million and a half unemployed people in Canada and they aren't just manufacturing workers," said Mike Sullivan, National Representative for the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union. "The media sector is laying off hundreds while pulp and paper companies continue to bleed jobs. In one breath the Harper government tells us to fend for ourselves in retirement by contributing to RRSPs, but in the next demands we exhaust the little we've been able to save in order to get EI. The EI rules are unfair, unrealistic and must be fixed now."

According to the latest data that is available from Statistics Canada, the unemployment rate for the GTA is 9%, up from 8.5% in January. Twelve out of Canada's largest 28 cities are now coping with high unemployment in excess of 7%. Eight of these twelve cities are in Ontario.

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