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An oil pump jack pumps oil in a field near Calgary, Alberta, July 21, 2014.

TODD KOROL/reuters

Albertans doubled their membership in an unenviable club last year – the employment-insurance recipients' club.

Year-end figures from Statistics Canada showed that Alberta had 62,480 people collecting EI benefits in December, up from 31,220 a year earlier, as the fallout from the severe oil slump continued to swell the province's ranks of unemployed. The December count was up 2.2 per cent from November, marking the 15th-straight month in which Alberta's EI numbers increased.

Indeed, Alberta accounted for nearly all of the national increase in EI beneficiaries in 2015. The Canada-wide total of recipients was 539,800 in December, up 36,800, or 7.3 per cent, from a year earlier. Excluding Alberta, the national count rose just 1.2 per cent in the year. The national total also fell for the third-straight month in December, slipping 0.5 per cent from November.

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Nationally, the EI figures show the stark contrast between resource-heavy provinces that were hit hard by slumping prices for oil and other commodities, and the economy in Central Canada that depends more on non-resource exports that have benefited from deep declines in the Canadian dollar. Quebec's count of EI recipients declined 3.7 per cent in 2015, while Ontario's numbers shrank by 2.3 per cent. But two other oil-producing provinces, Saskatchewan and Newfoundland saw their EI count rise by 38 per cent and 11 per cent, respectively. Over all, seven of the country's 10 provinces recorded increases in their number of EI-benefit recipients in 2015. In December, five of the 10 provinces posted increases from November. Alberta's month-to-month rise was the biggest on a percentage basis, while Quebec and Nova Scotia shared the month's biggest percentage decline, at 1.7 per cent.

However, Alberta's number of initial EI claims filed in December – an indication of the number of people who could join the ranks of EI beneficiaries in future months – fell 8.5 per cent, its first decline in four months. By contrast, countrywide initial claims rose 20.6 per cent, their third-straight double-digit increase.

Alberta's December figures indicate how the damage from the oil slump has spread beyond those working directly in oil and gas production. While the increases in the province's EI recipients in the first half of 2015 were concentrated more among tradespeople, contractors, labourers and equipment operators, the latest increases are showing more momentum among administrative positions and service sectors outside of the energy industry. The number of beneficiaries among management occupations swelled 7 per cent in December from November, the single biggest percentage increase in the province in the month (although the overall number of EI recipients in the category remains relatively small, making up only 7 per cent of the provincial total).

The number of Albertans on EI is only the tip of the iceberg of workers in the province who are jobless. Statscan data show that only 36.5 per cent of Alberta's 171,000 unemployed in December received EI benefits, below the national rate of 38.8 per cent. Alberta's total number of unemployed increased by 54,000, or 46 per cent in 2015.

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