Madam Speaker, it is an honour to be able to speak in the House today and address a very important topic that concerns huge numbers of Canadians because we are in the workforce, at least most desire to be. We have had relatively low unemployment over the course of a number of years. In anticipation of what lies ahead, I think our government has a very good program and approach at such a time.
The employment insurance program figures very largely in this government's economic action plan that we introduced in budget 2009. I thank the hon. member for raising the subject of the EI program for this House's discussion today.
As we all know, we are in the midst of a worldwide recession. We have said this before and it bears repeating: Canada is better prepared than almost any other country to weather that storm. Nonetheless, we will be sideswiped and we will feel the effects of it. Canadians in my constituency and in the constituencies of most members in the House are concerned about their jobs and their livelihoods.
It is our role as a federal government to help Canadians by creating as many jobs as possible and providing the financial protection to those who are at risk or who will unfortunately lose their jobs.
After an unprecedented cross-country consultation with stakeholders, individual Canadians and provincial and territorial counterparts, our government has developed a very comprehensive economic action plan to stimulate the economy and to support Canadians and their families during this period of global downturn and global economic uncertainty.
The plan was developed for Canadians in consultation with Canadians and it reflects, to remarkable degree, a consensus among those various stakeholders and stakeholder groups across the country. In our economic action plan, we are supporting Canadians by launching the Canada skills and transition strategy, which will help Canadian workers and their families through a three-pronged approach: to strengthen benefits for workers, to enhance the availability of training, and to keep the EI rates low for 2009 and 2010.
We are proposing to temporarily invest an unprecedented $8.3 billion in the Canada skills and transition strategy—and I say that again because that is very huge, very significant, this unprecedented investment of $8.3 billion in the Canada skills and transition strategy.
Central to that strategy is the employment insurance program. Our strategy proposes improvements to the employment insurance program that focus on meeting the greatest need right now, improving the duration of EI benefits to support those facing challenges in looking for work, and ensuring adequate support for retraining. That is the route that Canadians have asked us to take. That is the route they want us to take at this time.
Employment insurance figures largely in those consultations and in the development of our strategy for a way ahead. We looked at a number of ways that the EI program could be improved, and one of the areas was the two-week waiting period that all EI claimants in receipt of regular and special benefits must serve at the beginning of their benefit period. I take it that the members are listening closely at this point, because I know questions have been coming up on this over the course of the morning.
Before contemplating the removal of that two-week waiting period, as has been suggested by the hon. member who proposed this, it is important to examine its purpose. The concept of the waiting period was first introduced in the founding unemployment legislation of 1940, and the two-week waiting period has been a key feature of the EI program ever since 1971. We could well liken it to the deductible portion in private insurance. This is its history.
Now let us look at its relevance for us today, at this period of time. It ensures that EI resources are focused on workers dealing with significant gaps in employment. If we removed this aspect of the EI program, claims would not be processed any more quickly. In fact, it might take longer as there would be an uptake or a significant increase in volumes that would put further pressure on our EI service standards.
Protecting the integrity of the EI program is paramount so that it is there for workers when they need it. The two-week waiting period is necessary for verifying the claims, to ensure that those who are eligible to receive EI get the benefits they deserve as quickly as possible.
We need also to consider that removing the two-week waiting period may not help those most in need of additional benefits. While removing the two-week waiting period would result in an additional payment of two weeks for claimants who do not use their full entitlement, it would not provide assistance to those workers who exhaust their EI benefits. It would simply start and end their benefits two weeks earlier.
Let us now look at the cost for a moment. What would it cost to eliminate the two-week waiting period? It would cost over $1 billion annually, and implementing that costly measure would inevitably result in higher premiums for workers and for employers. At such a time in our economy, increased EI premiums are the last thing that workers and employers need. Therefore, we believe we need to have this approach, which we think much better meets the needs of Canadians.
It is interesting to note that the 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.
That is in the Hansard record of June 13, 2003, and from a Liberal minister at that. Therefore, our position on the two-week waiting period is no different from the previous Liberal government's position.
As was previously said in the House, we are backed up by Mr. David Dodge, the former Governor of the Bank of Canada. On December 18, Mr. Dodge appeared on the CTV Newsnet program, Mike Duffy Live. Mike is now, of course, a senator in the other place. However, on that occasion, December 18, when asked whether eliminating the two-week waiting period for EI was an expenditure worth making, Mr. Dodge responded forcefully. He said,
The answer is no. [Removing or eliminating that two-week waiting period] would probably be the worst waste of money we could make...because there's a lot of churn in the labour market, just normal churn.
Mr. Dodge said also,
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
We agree with the comments of the former Governor of the Bank of Canada.
That is why we are proposing to extend nationally the benefits of the current five-week pilot project that until now has only been provided in certain regions with the highest unemployment rates. This extension will provide regular claimants in regions not currently receiving additional EI benefits with five extra weeks of benefits.
In addition, we propose to increase the maximum duration of EI benefits available under the EI program to 50 weeks from the current 45 weeks. That measure would provide financial support for a longer period to unemployed Canadians who would otherwise have exhausted their benefits. That amounts to a whole lot and is a significant thing for the constituents ofSaskatoon—Wanuskewin, whom it is my privilege to represent. This means that with jobs perhaps being scarcer they would have more time to seek employment while still receiving EI.
In comparing the two approaches, removing the two-week waiting period versus providing extended benefits, our consultations clearly indicated that Canadians favour receiving the additional benefits.
Our proposed investments in the EI program cover a broad spectrum on both the benefits and the training side. It is an approach that we think best suits the needs of Canadians at this juncture in our economic situation and it meets the labour and economic needs of tomorrow.
Our government understands that unemployed Canadians are worried about putting food on the table and finding work to keep their homes and provide for their families. That is why, among other things, through our economic action plan we will help over 400,000 people benefit from an additional five weeks of EI benefits.
We will help 160,000 people, including long-tenured and older workers, get retrained to find a new job and put food on the table for their families.
We are making significant enhancements to the work-sharing program. In fact, today the Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development announced important changes to work-sharing agreements under the EI program. We are extending the work-sharing agreements by 14 weeks to a maximum of 52 weeks and providing greater flexibility in the qualifying criteria so more companies and workers can participate.
That is the goal of these work-sharing agreements, to help more Canadians continue working while their company is experiencing a temporary downturn.
Our economic plan was built by consulting with Canadians to help Canadians through these difficult times, and as such, our economic action plan supports Canadians and strengthens benefits for the unemployed.
While the NDP members like to propose uncosted and unaffordable solutions to the current economic crisis, our government is actually getting the job done at this unique time in the country's history.