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The number of Canadian workers who have signed up for a federal job-sharing program as an alternative to layoffs has soared dramatically in just eight months - up more than sixfold to 165,104.

The latest results from this $200-million initiative - which is helping constrain rising unemployment - were released in yesterday's third report card on the Harper government's economic stimulus package.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who last week ended up in opposition Liberal crosshairs over charges his bailout plan was creating insufficient jobs, yesterday skated through a defence of his record with relatively little resistance.

Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff found himself stymied as he tried to ramp up criticism of Mr. Harper for mismanaging the economy amid recession. Instead, he was thrust on the defensive after his Quebec lieutenant quit in a huff, exposing serious party divisions.

As yesterday's third stimulus progress report showed, employers across the country are using Ottawa's enriched work-sharing program to preserve jobs and reduce costs.

As of last week, 5,827 job-sharing deals are now in place, covering 165,104 staff. That's up from a fraction of such agreements affecting about 27,000 workers in January, 2009, before Ottawa sweetened its support for the safety-net program.

"Put in the context of about 300,000 jobs lost since January the surge in work sharing is very significant," Toronto Dominion chief economist Don Drummond said.

He said it's a "powerful cushion for the decline in employment," noting however that it's hard to predict exactly how many jobs would be lost without such agreements.

Under job-sharing, employers, with the consent of staff, can shorten the work week by one to three days and pay reduced wages accordingly. Employees then draw employment insurance benefits to compensate them for the reduction in work pay.

The Tories used the January stimulus package to expand the program, doubling to one year from six months the maximum period for drawing on the work-sharing scheme.

It's been a godsend for companies such as Calgary-based Standen's Ltd. The 475-employee firm, which makes heat-treated alloy steel parts, boasts on its website that "not a single member of the Standen's team has been laid off during this global recession."

John Simpson, director of personnel and human resources at Standen's, said a significant portion of the company is now on a reduced schedule, where, for example, people work three days a week and take two off. They receive roughly 60 per cent of their previous pay and then EI bumps it to 80 per cent.

It both preserves employee morale and retains skilled staff for when orders pick up.

"It gives [people]a safety net where they're not going to look over their shoulder and worry about whether they're going to have a job tomorrow," Mr. Simpson said.

He said Standen's has an edge now. "Our competitors that laid off people are going to be struggling when things get busy whereas we're going to have a much more experienced and skilled work force."

The enriched work-sharing program is popular in the economically hardest hit areas of Canada - provinces such as Ontario, British Columbia, and Quebec - where sectors such as manufacturing and forestry are struggling to cope.

Colleen Coates, a senior consultant at People First HR Services in Winnipeg, said Ottawa will have to decide whether to further extend the program in 2010 when companies hit their one-year maximum on work sharing.

"If companies haven't come out of all the difficulties they are having, particularly in manufacturing, then I am sure they will be faced with having to lay off employees."

Speaking in Saint John yesterday from an Irving-owned train yard, Mr. Harper said the Tories have committed 90 per cent of the stimulus funding planned for the 2009 year. He said funds have now been committed for more than 7,500 infrastructure and housing projects, of which 4,000 are in the construction or pre-construction phase.