Ottawa will scrutinize Canada's jobs report on Friday to see whether Edmonton and southern Saskatchewan will qualify for additional employment insurance benefits.
The federal Liberal government has been under pressure to help those two areas after deciding to expand EI for unemployed people in 12 regions that have suffered from the commodities slump.
The exclusion has been a sore point for the Alberta and Saskatchewan governments, given that the Edmonton region includes areas hit hard such as Leduc and southern Saskatchewan encompasses oil-dependent areas such as Estevan.
"Leaving Edmonton out of EI enhancements was a mistake," Alberta Finance Minister Joe Ceci told a business crowd in Toronto last week. Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall has complained that Ottawa omitted two-thirds of his province's oil patch.
The expanded benefits, unveiled in the government's budget in March, boost the duration of employment insurance by another five to 20 weeks.
But after saying it was a set list, the government changed its tune. Federal Employment Minister MaryAnn Mihychuk said Statistics Canada's monthly jobs report, due this Friday, will help determine whether Edmonton and southern Saskatchewan will be added to the list of 12 regions. She also said the B.C. Interior and Yukon could also qualify.
Crude is now selling for about $45 (U.S.) a barrel, compared with more than $100 in mid-2014. Over that period, Alberta's jobless rate has soared to as much as 7.9 per cent from 4.6 per cent and Saskatchewan's rate has jumped to 6.2 per cent from 3.5 per cent.
Many workers who lost their jobs in the earlier stages of the downturn have either used all their benefits or are close to running out of support.
"EI doesn't cover you very much or for very long," said Don Drummond, former chief economist with Toronto-Dominion Bank.
For the dozen regions, unemployment benefits were extended by five weeks to a maximum of 50 weeks from 45 weeks. For long-tenured workers, the cap was raised to 70 weeks from 50 weeks.
The government identified regions across the country where the unemployment rate has soared over the past year as oil prices plunged. Ottawa chose areas where it said the jobless rate had increased by two percentage points or more for a sustained period between March, 2015, and February, 2016, compared with its lowest point between December, 2014, and February, 2015, without showing significant signs of recovery.
But the formula is open to interpretation, which caused the uproar among the provincial governments.
For example, the EI-related jobless rate in northern Alberta, which was included in the EI top-up, rose to 12.3 per cent in February from 9.3 per cent in March of last year. Meanwhile, the rate in southern Saskatchewan, which was not part of the top-up, increased to 7.5 per cent from 5.5 per cent over the same period.
But although both regions' unemployment rates rose by two percentage points, northern Alberta, which includes the heart of the oil sands, Fort McMurray, was included, but not southern Saskatchewan. The EI-related jobless rate in Edmonton region rose to 6.8 per cent from 5.3 per cent over the same period.
The jobless rate for EI regions is calculated specifically for the employment insurance program and is based on a three-month average.
The 12 regions that were chosen are: Newfoundland and Labrador, Sudbury, Northern Ontario, northern Manitoba, Saskatoon, northern Saskatchewan, Calgary, northern Alberta, southern Alberta, northern British Columbia, Whitehorse and Nunavut.
Over all, Canada is expected to create no new jobs in April after adding 40,000 positions in March, according to analysts polled by Bloomberg. The jobless rate is expected to rise to 7.2 per cent in April from 7.1 per cent in the previous month.