moved that Bill C-280, An Act to amend the Employment Insurance Act (qualification for and entitlement to benefits), be read the second time and referred to a committee.
Mr. Speaker, it is an honour to stand here today and deliver a piece of legislation in my name that will have a great effect on the lives of hard-working Canadians who have, through no fault of their own, found themselves unemployed. It is people like them who define some of the most difficult challenges we are facing in Canada given the current difficult economic times.
My bill attempts to set right parts of Canada's employment insurance system so that people will be eligible to collect benefits and those benefits will better suit their needs.
Bill C-280 is a relatively simple piece of legislation with two major objectives. It seeks to create a uniform level of entry for a person to make a claim of EI benefits by lowering the threshold to 360 hours for people in every region of Canada. And it seeks to award people benefits based on their best 12 weeks of earnings in the year prior to their claim instead of the current 14 weeks that are considered to set a benefit amount.
This week I had to pinch myself to see if I was actually dreaming when I heard the Liberals say over and over again that they are now interested in reforming employment insurance. We actually welcome their attention to this issue. They are uniquely positioned in this debate, since much of what we are attempting to repair is the damage that they inflicted on the system during their string of three majority governments in the 1990s.
That period is when their finance minister turned off the tap on employment insurance and turned EI into a tax on working people that fed their surplus budgets and helped them implement corporate tax cuts, a passion which is shared by their soulmates, the Conservatives.
I must say that I am overjoyed, as I am certain many unemployed workers are, that the Liberals have done a 180 degree turn and apparently now share our goal to see the threshold for entry lowered to 360 hours. This would end the regional distinction in the qualifying period and help EI flow to more Canadians who truly need it right now.
At present there are nine different sets of criteria in terms of hours worked for nine different ranges of regional unemployment rates. Workers in Canada may require anywhere from 420 to 700 hours of eligible work to be able to become a claimant of this benefit. This inequity is not suited for the kind of job losses we are seeing in Canada today. Regional unemployment rates are in flux and shift from day to day and week to week. EI needs to be able to better respond to this challenge.
We are hearing from groups as diverse as the TD Bank and the Caledon Institute that lowering the number of hours needed to qualify for employment insurance is the right thing to do to help us combat the global recession. They understand that employment insurance does not only serve the individual but the community and the country as well. They understand that there is more to an economy than balance sheets and mathematical equations. They know that the economy is in fact the people who make up our nation, our communities and our households. They view the economy in both the long and the short term, and they have come to recognize that the economic measure that will help support our goals and dreams for a better future is an employment insurance system that catches more people in its safety net, not less.
There will be those less enlightened perhaps, but not actually malicious who will contend that we cannot afford to make employment insurance more accessible. Of course we know this is not true. EI is actually running a big surplus which should be used to improve the program and ensure people have access to benefits. It is not meant to be used and should not be used to pay off the government's debts or deficits, contrary to the Conservatives' and the Liberals' beliefs.
There will be those who will argue that the government has already expanded the number of weeks a person can remain as a claimant in a direct response to these challenging economic issues. We know that these extra weeks that the Conservative government continues to trumpet have been put in place as a temporary stopgap and have been added to the end of the benefit period, where they are less likely to be collected. We have said in other debates that it would be better to remove the two week waiting period for new claimants and use two of those five weeks right away, but that is for another debate. What is clear is that we cannot afford to miss this opportunity.
There are plenty of left-wing supporters for this motion that we are debating today, but I am also interested in those who would not be considered of the left who are calling for the expansion of employment insurance as a means of stimulating the economy.
When the chief economist for Moody's credit rating service testified before the U.S. house committee on small business last July, he showed that apart from food stamps, the best bang for a government's buck was to ensure that unemployed workers had access to employment insurance benefits. To determine the effectiveness of differing stimulus measures, he compared their multipliers, an equation that gives a dollar amount for the economic activity created by government spending to stimulate the economy. His conclusion was shocking.
Typical right-wing solutions such as permanent tax cuts came in as losses, negative equations that saw the dollars spent fizzle in half or more. They were in fact drains on the economy. Infrastructure spending was quite good, with a multiplier of $1.59 for every dollar spent. The problem with infrastructure is the amount of time it takes to have the money flow through the economy.
The best way to get money into the economy immediately was through increased spending on employment insurance, believe it or not. With a multiplier of $1.64, it is a measure that performs well and what is more, it is an efficient stimulus. It flows directly to those in need and to the communities most affected by job losses.
New Democrats could not agree more. What we are saying here in Canada is similar. Our government is not hearing anything new from us today and we know that as a fact. The government received a prebudget submission which outlined these very points. It was not from the Canadian Labour Congress or some like-minded group that the government is accustomed to dismissing out of hand either. It was from the director of the MBA program of the Sprott School of Business.
This shows that the government is hearing calls for improvements to employment insurance from all sides of the debate. It is, interestingly enough, a unifying concept. Apart from increasing the number of people who are eligible to receive EI, this bill also hopes to improve the benefits received by people, such as seasonal workers, by reducing the number of weeks used to calculate the level of benefit from their best 14 weeks to their best 12.
This is a small change that will really help people who make most of their money in short periods of time. Seasonal workers are especially vulnerable to longer sampling periods to set their EI rates. Often they have short, intense periods of work during which they make the majority of their money. They may, however, work many more weeks at their jobs doing the maintenance work that is required to be able to engage in the short but lucrative periods that make these jobs worth doing.
This measure sets out to help recognize the special needs of the workers who do these types of jobs. It will help smaller and rural communities keep in place a workforce that allows them to employ people during their boom periods and weather the lean periods in between.
I have mentioned that I am pleased to see that the Liberals are now calling for the same entry threshold as I have set out in this bill and for which the New Democrats have been championing for many years now.
I can only hope they are not playing games with those who find themselves in hard times and that they actually will support this very legislation that reduces the qualifying hours to 360 and removes regional differences. However, I remain leery of commitments from that party, given the fact that I originate from the labour movement and I remember the Conservatives' about-face on anti-scab legislation. This very issue still resonates not only with me but with the thousands of brothers and sisters in the labour movement.
As for the Conservatives, it is hoped that we can hold them to their word when they made the commitment to make necessary changes to address the economic crisis as things evolve.
Given the number of job losses, sadly a number that keeps growing, is it not time that, contrary to the beliefs of the Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development, the government needs to recognize that EI benefits are not lucrative and that it needs to take immediate action to rectify the problems the system has in terms of access to benefits for those who pay into it?
There is something fundamentally wrong when 1.4 million people are out of work and only 43% of them are able to receive benefits. Shame!
Given the way our manufacturing, forestry and mining sectors have been brutalized, surely the time to revisit our response to these challenges is upon us. It is time to recognize the need for fundamental change that will ensure those who have paid their premiums can actually access EI benefits when they fall on hard times.
I hope all parties in the House get behind the bill, as it will set about repairing a very worthwhile social program that has the potential to serve all Canadians at a time when all of us in this place are being looked upon for leadership and solutions to a unique crisis that will define this Parliament.
I would like to add a few of the comments that I have come across since the budget was implemented and the issues about the problems with EI.
I could quote Ken Georgetti, from the Canadian Labour Congress, who said:
People desperately need their government's help to protect and create jobs and to support the unemployed.
Mayor Miller of Toronto said:
We're quite concerned. The fact that the most vulnerable haven't been protected with appropriate changes to the E.I. program is very problematic for all cities.
The mayors and the reeves of these communities have all raised their concerns with regard to the changes to EI that need to occur. They have indicated that currently the fact that only 43% of people can actually have access to EI has been causing grave concern to them with regard to their welfare rolls. If people cannot access EI, they have to access welfare. With the two-week waiting period, those who can access EI actually end up on the welfare rolls anyhow because they are waiting for their cheques to come in.
The government seems to think it is okay to do that, that we can make people suffer at the beginning and just try to increase their rates at the end. However, at the end of the day, normally people will find work within 20 weeks and never have a chance to access those benefits.
I would like to quote a CanWest article, which reports:
Economists at TD Bank said Thursday that the federal government should make it easier for newly unemployed workers to receive benefits and should reverse changes it made to the formula that sets the premiums to be paid by employees and employers.
What is even more interesting is the comment that the article attributes to John McCallum on this very issue:
These are things we've been saying for a long, long time....