Madam Speaker, I welcome this opportunity to speak about the employment insurance program. I thank the hon. member for raising the subject.
I will address the specific issue of the two week waiting period in Bill C-241, but first I would like to outline our government's strategic approach to EI through Canada's economic action plan.
While Canada is better prepared than almost any other country to weather the worldwide recession, we certainly are not immune to it. We know people are facing uncertainty and are concerned. We know that those who have lost their jobs through no fault of their own are facing difficult times ahead. We feel for these people and we are working to protect them. We have taken and continue to take action to ensure that help is there for Canadians and their families when they need it most.
To this end, we consulted widely with Canadians. In fact, prior to introducing our economic action plan in budget 2009, we conducted the most extensive prebudget consultations in the history of our country.
Through our plan, among other things we are proposing to extend EI benefits, while investing an unprecedented $8.3 billion in the Canada skills and transition strategy. Our aim in all of this is to improve employment insurance in areas where the need is the greatest.
One of the things that came up time and time again through our consultations was that EI benefits needed to be lengthened in order to provide greater assistance to those facing longer-term challenges in looking for work. That is why through our economic action plan, for the next two years, we will make available nationally the five weeks of extended EI benefits that have been previously available through a pilot project only, in regions with the highest unemployment. The government will also increase the maximum duration of benefits to 50 weeks, up from 45.
Some 400,000 Canadians could benefit from these changes. This measure will provide financial support for a longer period to unemployed Canadians who would otherwise have exhausted their benefits. This means unemployed workers will have more time to seek employment while receiving EI.
This is very important and a point I cannot stress enough. Exhaustion of EI benefits is difficult on any family. Canadians who are unemployed for extended periods will have more time to find work under our plan.
It is putting the dollars to use where they are needed the most. This approach better suits the needs of Canadians than simply eliminating the two week waiting period of which the member speaks. There are several reasons for this.
First, it is important to look at why there is a two week waiting period in the first place. The two week waiting period serves to ensure that EI resources are focused on workers dealing with significant gaps in employment. In fact, if we eliminated the two week waiting period, claims would not be processed any more quickly. The additional processing required by eliminating the waiting period would generate a significant increase in volumes associated with short spells of unemployment. This would put further pressure on service standards and processing resources.
These additional strains and pressures on the system could lead to even longer wait times for people to have their claims processed.
On these points, we are backed up by David Dodge, the former governor of the Bank of Canada. On December 18, Mr. Dodge appeared on the CTV Newsnet program, Mike Duffy Live. Some of us still remember that program and many have watched it.
When asked whether eliminating the two week waiting period for EI was an expenditure worth making, Mr. Dodge responded unequivocally. He said, “The answer is no. That would be probably the worst waste of money we could make...because there's a lot of churn in the labour market, just normal churn”. Mr. Dodge also said, “that two weeks is there for a very good reason...the real issue is that some of these people are going to be off work for a rather long period of time”.
Therefore, that is where we are directing our efforts. I think what the former governor of the Bank of Canada was trying to say at that time was those who were off for longer periods of time were the ones who were in more desperate straits and needed the help to a greater extent.
The fact is that during these uncertain times, some people may be off work for longer periods. That is why EI help needs to be targeted in such a fashion, so they will receive that help when they need it.
It is worth noting that the Bloc's proposal to eliminate the two week wait period would not provide any additional assistance to workers who exhaust their EI benefits. For those who exhaust all of their EI benefits, eliminating the two week period would simply mean their benefits would start two weeks earlier but they would also end two weeks earlier.
We believe that providing EI claimants with five additional weeks of benefit is better targeted than the two weeks the opposition is proposing. Five weeks is better than two weeks. I wonder if the member would not agree with me that is a significant improvement and an advancement to the program. This is better targeted help. This is smarter help. It is help that is needed more.
Providing an additional five weeks of benefits would go further in helping those who need our help the most, those who are having difficulty finding work over the long term. They will derive greater benefit from having five additional weeks of benefits as opposed to only getting two weeks of additional benefits at the beginning of their EI claim period.
Looking at the bigger picture, our economic action plan focuses not only on the benefit side of EI, but equally on the importance of training. We are increasing funding for training delivered through the employment insurance program by $1 billion over two years.
This large investment will help to respond to the higher demand for labour market programs and training owing to increased unemployment. As a result, thousands more EI eligible clients could receive training and be better prepared when times improve.
In this regard, I would like to highlight something else David Dodge said, “I think the Prime Minister's right, that we do have to concentrate on improving the skills of people, and with that improvement in skills...we will find opportunities going forward”.
We are making an investment into the future. We are making an investment in people so when the economic circumstances change they will be ready to meet the challenges.
I agree with Mr. Dodge. We do need to concentrate on improving skills and training, and that is what we are doing.
Our plan also takes into consideration the needs of long-tenured workers who have been laid off. To help these long-tenured workers change occupations or sectors, we are introducing a pilot project that would extend EI benefits to them so they could pursue longer term training.
We are also proposing that workers with severance or other separation payments be eligible for earlier access to EI benefits if they use some or all of their payments to purchase skills upgrading or training.
With our plan, not only are we proposing to extend benefits, we are also proposing to freeze EI premium rates for 2010 at the same rate as 2009. This will provide a projected $4.5 billion stimulus over two years.
This stimulus means more money for employers to keep or hire employees. This means more money in the pockets of hardworking Canadians.
Through our new strategic training and transition fund, we are also providing significant funds to help meet the different training and support needs of workers who do not qualify for EI. This will include those who have been out of work for a prolonged period of time. Up to 50,000 individuals are expected to benefit from this training and other measures.
Rather than looking at just one aspect of EI and tinkering around the edges, we have looked at the economic and labour market as a whole. We have put forward EI measures that are targeted to the needs of Canadians. Our actions are forward-looking and better suited to help those who need it most.
Members of the Liberal opposition should be reminded that their former Liberal minister of human resources, Jane Stewart, had this to say about the two week waiting period, “the two week waiting period is like a deductible in an insurance program. It is there for a purpose”.
In the end we have to look at the entire package. The entire package not only helps those who are on EI for a longer period of time, but it allows them to upgrade their skills and retrain. We have to look at the broad picture by investing billions of dollars into skills training and retraining.
We are looking at the big picture. We cannot take just one segment of it like the bill proposes to do. We have to look at it globally, which we have done. I think Canadians will find it acceptable.