After consecutive months of "good news" job reports, few Canadians seem to be aware that special employment insurance stimulus measures announced under Canada's Economic Action Plan will soon fall off a cliff - the same measures that are currently helping to bolster our troubled economy and keeping families' heads above water.
The Harper government's 2009 budget EI measures - which, among other adjustments, added five weeks of EI for all claimants - were only intended to be temporary. After Sept. 11, all new EI claims will be excluded from these extensions. Also terminating shortly after will be the highly successful pilot projects that boost benefits for eligible workers. Other measures such as EI Work Sharing and EI training benefits have already been curtailed.
Haunted by the spectre of a double dip recession, it would be a huge mistake to remove fiscal stimulus through EI benefits when we still need economic oxygen to support this fragile recovery.
Many workers are facing their second or third layoff since 2008. Statistics Canada has just reported that regular EI beneficiaries increased in May for the first time in eight months, to more than 680,000. That's not reassuring.
Also troubling is that Canada's long-term unemployed has doubled as a percentage of the country's total unemployed, prompting a recommendation from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development that temporary EI extensions "be maintained until the pool of long-term unemployed begins to drop significantly." This is good advice to be heeded by a federal government that often appears too quick to consider the economic meltdown a thing of the past. Too many Canadian workers are still in survival mode, forced to rely on precarious, part-time and temp agency jobs.
With little public attention, government is not under pressure to act. Recent experiences in the United States show the damages caused by delay.
The U.S. Senate just squeaked through long overdue unemployment insurance extensions to laid-off Americans - after special provisions expired on June 2. It was only on July 20 that the senators voted to end a six-week Republican filibuster that had prevented the UI bill from moving to final passage. The bill extends UI supports for those left out of work for six months or longer. Retroactive benefits also will be made available, but that will only partially repair the damage done while families had to beg and borrow to put bread on the table.
It's important to note that U.S. federal UI stimulus spending extended benefits for as much as 99 weeks in most states. Canada's EI extensions pale in comparison. The longest duration for a new EI claim is 60 weeks, and even that's limited to long-service workers with full-year jobs in regions with unemployment exceeding 10 per cent. By Sept. 12, all new claim maximums will revert to 36 to 45 weeks, depending on the level of regional unemployment.
Communities need the economic stimulus provided by these extension measures. It is dangerously premature to assume we've safely managed our way out of the global economic mess.
EI stimulus measures are vital to a sustainable recovery. They need to be extended beyond 2010 or made permanent. These measures include:
• An extra five weeks of benefits for all claimants, a regional maximum of 50 weeks and extension of as much as 20 weeks for long-service workers;
• Two pilot projects that calculate benefits on 14 best weeks of earnings and allow earnings of as much as 40 per cent of benefits while on EI;
• EI training benefits for claimants in approved retraining programs.
As Canadian Auto Workers president Ken Lewenza and Fish, Food and Allied Workers president Earle McCurdy said in a recent letter to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, "$57-billion in EI premiums borrowed by successive governments was supposed to be there for us in the event of a rainy day." It's now raining.
Laurell Ritchie is an EI specialist at the Canadian Auto Workers union.