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As new figures show employment insurance claims soaring, the Harper government is spending an additional $60-million to hire backup for swamped Service Canada employees who dole out the money.

Conservative ministers were bombarded yesterday with opposition calls for much larger changes to employment insurance after a new report showed that the number of Canadians applying for the program jumped to 560,400 in January, up 22.8 per cent from a record low a year ago.

Diane Finley, the Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development, insisted that claims are being processed on time and the new money will ensure that the department doesn't fall behind as applications rise.

"We are meeting our existing target of 80 per cent processed within 28 days," said Ms. Finley, who announced the $60-million in new money at a news conference yesterday. "Unfortunately, there are more and more people getting laid off, and the demand for unemployment insurance is growing, as is the demand for work sharing."

But opposition MPs say their offices are swamped with calls from jobless Canadians telling of EI delays.

"Minister Finley is lying when she says there have not been increases in delays in obtaining employment insurance in Canada," NDP finance critic Tom Mulcair said."It's a catastrophe right now administratively. So what she's proposing today is a Band-Aid solution to try to come to grips with some of that."

Opposition MPs passed a non-binding NDP motion earlier this month that called for an end to the two-week waiting period for EI and more generous benefits. The government has said that it already made EI more accessible through a range of measures in the 2009 budget.

But fewer than half of the 1.4 million unemployed in Canada received employment insurance benefits in January, compared with 83 per cent in 1989.

Dave Parker, co-ordinator of the United Steelworkers action centre in Toronto, said Ms. Finley "doesn't get it" if she thinks hiring more people to speed up the processing of claims will help much.

"That's not the biggest issue. It's the amount and for how long," Mr. Parker said.

All claimants should be entitled to at least 50 weeks of benefits to help them ride out the downturn, he said. The qualifying standards differ across the country, many people receive far less than 50 weeks of coverage, and payouts are capped at $447 a week.

Economist Andrew Jackson, director of social and economic policy for the Canadian Labour Congress, said jobless Canadians in Alberta and British Columbia are "really suffering" from rules that require them to work longer to qualify for EI and receive fewer benefits than the unemployed in other regions, such as the Maritimes, with traditionally higher unemployment rates.

Ontario was particularly hard hit as the depressed manufacturing sector pushed unemployment up 81.6 per cent in the city of Windsor.

The union representing Service Canada employees said the government's spending announcement, which should lead to 1,500 new jobs, is welcome news to staff that have been working evening and weekend shifts.

"They're burnt out," said Jeannette Meunier-McKay, national president of the Canada Employment and Immigration Union. Ms. Meunier-McKay said she doesn't believe the government is meeting its processing targets, saying she knows of many cases in which delays reach 40 or 50 days.

Economists expect unemployment claims to increase even further in the coming months as the recession continues to exact its toll.

New figures released yesterday show the number of people filing for bankruptcy rose to 92,029 for the 12-month period ended in January, an increase of 15 per cent on the year before.

Some of the recession's early casualties, such as former $22-an-hour auto parts worker Deonarine Persaud, have already exhausted their benefits.

"I have been living on unemployment [insurance]and I don't know what next I will do. It's finished," said Mr. Persaud, who was at the Steelworkers centre to get help with an application for training funds so he can upgrade his skills.

Mr. Persaud has also hit the employment agencies, sometimes landing a day's work, other times working one week - anything to pay the mortgage.

When Alvaro Pires lost his job at Canac Kitchens in Thornhill, Ont., last year after 24 years with the company, he walked into the showroom of a competitor, asked for work, and was hired at a similar pay rate.

But that job, which paid more than $17 an hour, lasted only four months before Mr. Pires and four others were laid off. Mr. Pires is once again looking for work to support his daughter and pay the bills. Meantime, his application for employment insurance benefits is "in the system," he said.

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Employment insurance

Seasonally adjusted number of Canadians receiving EI benefits, January, 2009

Recipients Annual %
change
Canada $60,400 21.3
Nfld. 36,870 4.6
PEI 7,790 1.6
N.S. 29,110 8.3
N.B. 30,470 0.9
Que 175,850 9.3
Ont. 181,510 43.0
Man. 11,670 20.2
Sask. 9,090 8.5
Atla 23,340 46.1
B.C. 56,110 47.7
Yukon 880 17.3
NWT 810 24.6
Nunavut 420 35.5

NUMBERS MAY NOT ADD DUE TO ROUNDING

THE CANADIAN PRESS/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

SOURCE: STATISTICS CANADA