Mr. Speaker, again I would like to congratulate my colleague, the member for Welland, for bringing this bill forward. Clearly, he understands the issue, cares about it passionately and has given a great deal of thought to it.
I want to start by talking about how big an issue employment insurance is in Canada right now. Today we got word that according to Statistics Canada a staggering 325,700 EI claims were received in February. That is up 51,000, some 18%, from January. That is the largest number of EI claims since the tracking of EI data began. The total number of regular EI beneficiaries has climbed 22% since October 2008. Today there are well over 600,000 Canadians collecting benefits.
This issue is gripping Canadians. I would say it is an issue that is gripping Canadians who for many years probably thought, not in an arrogant way but because of history, that they would not be touched by a faltering economy. However, now they are, through no fault of their own.
The government's response has been very weak. When the economy started to dip a bit last year, instead of dealing with it, the Prime Minister decided to call an election. In the fall when Barack Obama was already talking about a stimulus package, the Conservative government came out with an economic update that did nothing to stimulate the economy but did a lot to stimulate politics in Canada. Then in January when we finally came back here, yes, there had been an improvement.
The parliamentary secretary, from his briefing notes that we just heard him read, spoke about the additional five weeks. That was helpful to a small percentage of Canadians, the less than half of Canadians who can claim EI. There was some money for training. There is so much more to be done. It is not just what people sometimes refer to as the usual suspects, the social policy groups, the anti-poverty organizations and organized labour, but even organizations like the C.D. Howe Institute have said that they were surprised the government did not do more on EI.
Today at the human resources committee, we were doing an anti-poverty study. My colleague from the Sault who is in the House tonight is well aware of this. Armine Yalnizyan from the CCPA, Dennis Howlett from Make Poverty History, and Canada Without Poverty, formerly NAPO, the National Anti-Poverty Organization all spoke about how important EI is as part of the country's social infrastructure.
The simple fact is our EI system, as we know it today, is not recession tested. So how do we fix that? Our colleague has brought forward his idea. There are other things we could do, obviously. We have a regional rate system, and maybe we could go to a national standard. That has been called for. We could increase the percentage of earnings that an individual could qualify for, a maximum of 55% of $42,000. It is still not exactly as my colleague said, it is not 55% of replacement earnings for somebody who maybe had been working in the auto sector or had another job. Maybe we could look at that. Maybe we could go to the best 12 weeks.
Maybe it is time we seriously looked at the structural issues of EI, as to how they affect women and part-time workers who are not well treated in the EI system. We know that.
My colleague from Cape Breton—Canso is in the House tonight. He was on the human rights committee, along with others, when it looked at this issue. Up until 1984, I think, severance was dealt with separately. People did not lose EI because they had received a severance payment. I think Michael Wilson was the finance minister when that was changed. It was the way things were done. The human resources committee has looked at it before and has done some work on this.
How do we prioritize what we are going to do on EI, and where does this bill fit in with that? I do not think it is right to say that there is not a cost. There is a cost to the system, but it may well be a justifiable cost.
With respect to the EI fund, as people know, there has been a surplus each year for the last number of years of what has been paid in and what has been paid out. Some money is there, even in normal times, that we could look at when it comes to the need of the country for a stronger social infrastructure.
There was a point in time when the percentage of replacement earnings was about 75% to 77% in Canada. We have to look at those things. We have to determine in each case what is the cost and what is the benefit.
We also have to remember that this recession is an opportunity to focus on the needs of our social infrastructure, but issues existed before, things like regional rates, how women, largely part-time workers, are affected. We need to do some things.
Vacation pay is for work that was provided in the year directly previous to somebody being severed from his or her employment. That should not affect EI.
The question on severance is a little more complicated. There are many arguments in favour. Some workers have worked for the same company for many years. They put their heart and soul into that company. They should be treated well for their service when they are let go. Those workers paid into EI for years. Why should they not draw some kind of full benefit from the employment insurance system?
Maybe there are other possibilities. Maybe there should be lump sum protection in the EI system. Maybe there should be a specific percentage clawback. These are things that we could look at. It may be that more evaluation is required.
This is an indication of the kinds of problems we have with the EI system. At their time of hardship, people are not getting the financial support that this country is well known for and the kind of financial support they expect.
Some anti-poverty groups say that if issues on EI are going to be prioritized, this would not be in the top five. They think we should get rid of regional rates, look at the two-week waiting period, and maybe even add more than five weeks to the employment insurance system, as is being done in the United States.
I get emails, as do all MPs. I received an email from somebody the other day who had been laid off without any severance package at all. It took her more than a year to get fairness from her company. She eventually won her case and the company had to pay her a lump sum, but employment insurance clawed back the money.
These people are not rich. EI is not a lucrative system, contrary to what the minister has indicated. The minister said she was concerned about making employment insurance too lucrative. She did not want to pay people not to work. That is a throwback to Reform Party days. At $440 maximum earnings a week, and an average of $335 a week, employment insurance is not too lucrative. We could afford to do a lot more for Canadians than what we are doing for them right now. The Conservative government has to act.
There was the other spectacle regarding the two-week waiting period. That is really a misnomer. It is not a waiting period; it is a period during which the individual does not receive benefits. The waiting period is how long an individual has to wait to get a claim processed. We have seen ample evidence in this country of people waiting a long time. The standard, according to Service Canada, is that 80% of claims are dealt with in 28 days or less. That has slipped dramatically.
On November 27 I stood in the House and asked a question of the Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development about this. On December 19 I sent her a letter. Two months later I received a letter from her apologizing for the delay in getting back to me about my concern about delays.
The government has not made employment insurance adjustment a priority. It has not put a priority on building that social infrastructure that makes Canada strong. As a result, people are hurting severely.
Bill C-279 brings up the issue of severance. It brings up the issue of pensions in some cases. It brings up the issue of vacation pay in some cases.
I want to congratulate my colleague for bringing this bill forward. I want to congratulate many colleagues in the House. I see my colleague from the Bloc, who has brought forward measures on EI that have come to our committee for consideration.
We need to make sure the government understands that the EI system needs to be more robust, especially during a recession.
Somebody back home said to me that a recession is too important a thing to waste. In other words, let us do something about poverty in this country. Let us do something about the social infrastructure, including employment insurance.
I congratulate the member for Welland for bringing this issue up. I look forward to the further debate on it and seeing how things turn out.