Mr. Speaker, I rise to speak to this motion on behalf of all of those who, through no fault of their own, find that they have to avail themselves of the employment insurance system from time to time; especially, those in my constituency of Random—Burin—St. George's who both pay into and end up having to rely on employment insurance.
Mr. Speaker, let me say I will be splitting my time with the member for Winnipeg North.
I am told that until one actually has to avail oneself of the employment insurance system, it is really hard for one to understand or appreciate just what is involved. I heard that from time to time from my constituents, the people I represent, who would really much rather be working and earning a living than having to depend upon a system of any sort to help them provide for their families.
Recently released employment data, for instance, for the province I represent, Newfoundland and Labrador, shows that unemployment levels are steadily rising. The general unemployment rate for February 2015 was 12.6%, up nearly a full percentage point from February 2014. For the same period, the unemployment rate for young people aged 15 to 24 was 16.4%.
That tells us how difficult it is for some people in the province of Newfoundland and Labrador, let alone throughout the country, to make ends meet when they are having difficulty acquiring a job. We have adult children moving back in with their parents because they cannot get that first job. If they are lucky enough to secure work, if the jobs are available, they are part time, making it difficult, if not impossible, for them to make ends meet by their own means. That is the impact that such a weak economy is having upon parents and their children.
Young adults trying to find that first job are unable to contribute EI premiums and, thus, despite being unemployed, are unable to access benefits. They are forever caught between a rock, which is a weak job market, and a hard place, which is their inability to receive EI because they have not worked enough hours to qualify. This creates a vicious cycle, particularly with respect to EI training benefits.
EI training benefits are intended to help unemployed workers gain the skills they need to find a new job. However, there is a catch. First, they must be EI beneficiaries to access them. This is particularly problematic when we consider the fact that, according to the Mowat EI task force report, those who do not have enough hours to qualify for EI may benefit most from access to training programs. These young workers stand to benefit the most from these training programs and yet are unable to access them. It is indeed a vicious circle, one that we must put a stop to.
The best way to combat youth unemployment and to help create a secure financial future is through job creation and job training. At a time when youth unemployment is high and many students and recent graduates struggle to find jobs or co-op placements, the current government is continuing to compound the problem by its actions. Instead of supporting young workers, the current Conservative government cut funding to the Canada summer jobs program, which provided income and valuable job experience for young Canadians.
Young workers and the self-employed are not the only people struggling to obtain benefits. In addition to keeping premiums artificially high, the current Conservative government has also made major changes to the EI system that have had disproportionately negative effects on workers in seasonal industries.
The current government has required people to accept jobs further and further from where they are living, increasing commuting costs, often dramatically, and decreasing quality of life. A one-hour commute in my riding can impose a significant financial burden upon already vulnerable workers because of lack of public transportation and high fuel costs. Also, in a lot of cases, the conditions of the roads over which they have to travel are not the most helpful and, again, this increases costs because of the wear and tear on the vehicles that they drive.
The Conservative government has also moved to broaden the definition of suitable employment to force people to accept jobs that are less comparable to their previous employment. Frequent users of EI, such as those in seasonal industries, must now accept virtually any available job. These changes mean workers may be forced to constantly jump between industries and towns more than ever before, again, just to make ends meet.
What does the government offer them? Callous indifference. The same sort of indifference we have seen in my office and offices across the country, as people call in desperation as they are forced to wait well beyond the 28 days for their claims to be processed. All because cuts at Service Canada left them understaffed and unable to process claims in a timely manner.
We have had instances in Random—Burin—St. George's where people had to wait as long as 70 days. If they make one little mistake, they do not get a call asking about that mistake, their claim is denied and they have to reapply. Not just 70 days, but we have had them wait 45 days. It is unreasonable and it is indeed callous. These are people who are having to go without an income while they are waiting to have their claims processed.
They would much rather be working. They do not want to have to depend on a government system, although remember, it is their system, their money and they paid into this insurance program. They would much rather work and it is unfair for them to have to wait such a long period of time to access their own money through the insurance program.
This jeopardizes not just the economic security of those hard-working Canadians forced to travel in search of work, it also jeopardizes the economic security of their communities, many of which are reliant on seasonal industries for their continued survival.
The government should be working to make it easier for Canadians to not just make ends meet, but to thrive. Instead, the Conservative government seems intent on making it more difficult. This is an issue of fairness. Canadians need and deserve an employment insurance system that provides fair benefits at a fair cost. While this motion will not reverse all the damaging changes we have seen in the EI system over the past almost decade of Conservative government, it is indeed a step in the right direction.
Liberals have been calling for the Conservatives to allow the EI account to balance itself over the business cycle. However, since the government agreed to that in 2012, it has never actually allowed the rate to be set where it should be to achieve a seven-year balance. After several EI rate setting mechanism changes over the past few years, the government finally settled on a plan that aims to have the EI account balanced over the course of seven years, a time frame which in theory should prevent very large premium hikes in periods of economic downturn.
Unfortunately, despite this new system, the government opted not to follow its own actuarial advice on where to set the EI premium rate in 2015. Instead, it chose to set the rate above the level needed to achieve the seven-year balance. The Parliamentary Budget Officer in his recent report said the setting of the EI premium rate in 2015-16 continues to be a concern and that this acted against the government's objective of ensuring EI premiums are set transparently and used only for EI benefits and administration purposes.
The Conservative government froze EI premiums artificially high in 2015, forcing workers and their employers to pay $2.7 billion more in premiums this year than the government expects to pay in benefits. That is $2.7 billion that could be reinvested in Canadian business to create more jobs and put money in the pockets of hard-working Canadians. That decision by the government was unfair. Perhaps even more unfair, many unemployed Canadians are unable to collect EI benefits despite paying into the program.
In 2014, only 38% of unemployed workers in Canada were eligible to collect EI. Contract workers are often unable to access benefits between contracts. Part-time workers often do not accumulate enough hours to be eligible and the self-employed still have access to fewer benefits than other workers. It is time for us to take this seriously and to do what needs to be done to set the employment insurance benefit system right.