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Gordon Campbell

Ottawa and the provinces must extend a helping hand to workers Add to ...

With all of the discussion these days about employment insurance reforms, it is timely to consider affordable improvements that will assist families and unemployed individuals who are struggling to get through this global recession.

First, we need to eliminate the regional discrepancies in eligibility rules that are particularly unfair to Western Canadians. In these turbulent times, the rapidly changing regional variations in unemployment rates should not be used as a basis for determining how long someone should have to work before qualifying for EI benefits.

Current eligibility rules require anywhere from 420 to 910 hours of employment before workers can qualify for EI - depending on local unemployment rates. This is clearly discriminatory. It denies many people access to EI benefits simply because they lost their job in an area that supposedly has relatively lower unemployment rates.

If you're out of work, you should know that your EI eligibility entitlements are the same as all Canadians - one country with one set of citizenship rights. If 420 hours of work is sufficient to qualify for EI in one province, that should be the standard for every province. If the cost of that universal standard is too prohibitive, the federal government should establish a common eligibility period that is affordable without increasing employer costs.

Second, we need to find an affordable way of extending EI benefits to help workers who have either recently exhausted their benefits or who are about to lose their EI income. This could be achieved through a new cost-sharing partnership between the federal and provincial governments that would redirect some provincial income assistance funding to help the federal government fund extended EI benefits.

Income assistance is clearly the last social safety net into which any worker wants to fall. Not only are the monthly benefits often less than those payable under EI, but those who are forced to go on welfare risk entering a cycle of dependency that is tough on families, communities and our economy.

The reality is that as long as a worker is on EI, they tend to have more hope about their eventual job prospects and the temporary nature of their predicament. They also often have more money to pay their bills, keep their homes and weather temporary recessions.

Many workers are now faced with the reality or prospect of exhausting their EI benefits - and they're scared. They know this downturn will eventually pass, but their near-term financial outlook is pretty bleak. For the first time, they are worried that they may be forced to pick up stakes and maybe wind up on welfare.

Provincial governments can be part of the solution by offering to partner with the federal government in extending individuals' maximum EI benefits. Instead of making income assistance payments to those people, they could offer to transfer that funding to the federal government to help fund the cost of extended EI benefits.

A formula could be established that sets differential maximum periods for receiving EI, depending on how long recipients have paid into the program. The maximum time anyone would be able to receive benefits would be two years - long enough to weather the worst of the current recession. The maximum monthly EI benefit might be reduced after the first year and could be a flat rate that is not tied to previous income levels. But it would still be significantly higher than any province's income assistance rates.

The provinces would pay Ottawa a flat monthly fee per EI claimant that is equivalent to what they would otherwise pay for providing income assistance to those individuals in their own province. The federal government would top up the difference, to a maximum that is pro-rated for each province's per capita contribution.

The federal government and provinces should work in partnership to do the best we can for all of Canada's workers, regardless of where they live or are employed. They pay equivalent national taxes and all should receive equivalent national benefits. We must unite in providing Canadians more effective support as we move through these trying times.

Gordon Campbell is Premier of British Columbia.

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