Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to have the opportunity to address the issue of EI with respect to Bill C-241.
Meeting the needs of Canadians in these increasingly uncertain economic times is a priority for our government. To determine these needs, our government engaged in the most extensive prebudget consultations in Canada's history. We listened closely to the concerns of Canadians, especially with regard to employment insurance. We listened and are taking action.
Through Canada's economic plan, we are taking unprecedented steps to create jobs, preserve jobs and to provide support to those who have lost their jobs and are now looking for work.
Our government understands that Canadians are worried about putting food on the table and finding work to keep their homes and provide for their families. That is why we have taken the unprecedented steps to support the unemployed, preserve jobs and retrain workers for the jobs of the future.
With respect to employment insurance benefits, we have extended, nationally, the advantage of an extra five weeks of benefits currently offered as part of a pilot project that, until now, was only provided in specific regions with high unemployment. In addition, the maximum duration of benefits available under the employment insurance program has increased by five weeks, from 45 to 50 weeks. It is estimated that this extension will benefit 400,000 Canadians in the first year alone.
We believe that this measure is a better option than removing the two week waiting period because it would 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 workers who exhaust their employment insurance benefits. Eliminating the two week waiting period simply means that their benefits would start two weeks earlier but would also end two weeks earlier.
Our additional weeks of employment insurance benefits would provide regular employment insurance clients with the assurance that, should they require it, they will have the financial support for a longer period of time while they pursue their job searches.
Exhaustion of EI benefits is a tough prospect to face. Providing additional support to unemployed Canadians who would otherwise have exhausted their benefits helps those who need it the most.
I would point out, too, that this proposed measure would be in addition to the automatic adjustments in the employment insurance program that respond quickly to changes in economic conditions. Through the variable entrance requirement, the current EI program has built-in flexibility specifically designed to respond automatically to changes in local labour markets.
The entrance requirements ease and the duration of benefits increase as the rates rise. These requirements are adjusted on a monthly basis to reflect the latest regional unemployment rates. This system ensures that the amount of assistance provided increases as the unemployment rate rises. Support flows to regions and communities that need it the most.
In fact, since October 2008, EI claimants in 32 of the 58 regions across the country can now access EI benefits with fewer hours of work while benefiting from the EI benefits for a longer period of time. For example, since October 2008, EI claimants in the region of Kitchener, not too far from my hometown, can now access an additional 13 weeks of benefits while working 4 weeks less to access these benefits.
We have also made significant efforts and investments to process the increasing number of EI claims so that employment insurance claimants can receive the benefits they need as quickly as possible. In this regard, we have allocated $60 million toward hiring additional staff and increasing capacity. We are redistributing workloads across the country and recalling recent retirees. We are also increasing overtime, opening employment insurance call centres on Saturdays and increasing automation of the claims process.
All of those actions are helping to ensure that unemployed Canadians and their families get the support they need in the fastest possible manner.
I also remind the House that we have not hesitated to test new approaches to make EI changes when they are proven to be warranted. I will give some of my own experiences in life to further explain how the five weeks are really impacting those Canadians we are trying to reach.
I heard my colleagues across the floor comment about certain parts of our employment insurance enhancements. I worked for an auto parts manufacturer, Westcast Industries in Southwestern Ontario, for many years. Like many other companies in the auto sector, it has felt the tougher times. When I started there in 2000, there were 353 employees. At the end of this month, that facility will be mothballed.
While I was in my riding over the past two weeks, I went out to various events and worked hard in the community. I ran into a number of my former colleagues, who unfortunately have been unable to find jobs. The first thing did was thank our government for extending those five weeks. They were not sure what lay ahead in the future, but they certainly appreciated the five weeks we added to the back end of their employment insurance.
Another fantastic example of what is working is the retraining. I have a number of former colleagues who fortunately look at the world as a cup that is half full, as do I. They have been able to get retraining. Some friends of mine who I used to work with are going through to be millwrights. They are exploring all sorts of different career options. It is a new chapter in their lives. This government has responded in many different manners. One of them is the $60 million recently announced to help process the claims as fast as possible.
I would also like to recognize our Service Canada workers and the great job they do. Our regional office is in Kitchener. The director, Ross Tayler, has his staff working around the clock, doing the very best job they can. I think it is important that we recognize those workers. They are taking time away from their families to ensure those dollars begin to flow in a timely manner to those who have just lost their jobs.
I was fortunate to be able to move on to a new position and a new career before the large number of layoffs occurred at the company for which I worked, but the weight and burden of the unknown of whether people's jobs will be there tomorrow is an extremely tough thing on their family and their psyche. The one piece out of this, which is so important, is the extra five weeks at the end of their employment insurance. They know they have an extra month and week, just in case they are unable to get that job. They are able to get out and continue to search for a job.
We have invested over $1 billion in training, which is excellent. This will allow those who have recently lost their jobs or who are currently in the workforce and are looking for a change in career to look to the new economies: a green economy, our information technology and our new high tech and skilled positions. Believe it or not, there are a number of positions in my riding in the aeronautical industry. Currently 50 positions are available in that area.
The programs we have put in place for retraining will allow people who have lost their jobs in a riding such as Huron—Bruce to get retrained and get those skills so they can gain new employment in new industries and sectors. That is why I am so proud of this government. I am so proud of the minister and her staff for how hard they have worked and for the consultation they have done with Canadians.
It is no coincidence that we have added five weeks to the end of the employment insurance process. It is no mistake that when I go out into my community, the additional five weeks of employment insurance is the first thing mention to me. They thank our government. It shows that our government is listening to Canadians and reacting in a timely matter. Good government is all about that.