Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise today to speak to Bill C-280. The issue of employment insurance is critical and impacts every community in our country. I am glad to have the opportunity to discuss the need for changes to this critical component of our social infrastructure.
Since the economic crisis began, more than 300,000 Canadians have lost their jobs. Our system of employment insurance, designed more than 60 years ago, was simply not structured to effectively manage a national crisis of this scope.
More than 40% of unemployed Canadians who have paid into employment insurance do not qualify for benefits because of where they live. This is a serious concern and one the bill takes steps to address.
Employment insurance rules have not kept pace with the changing work environment. Current restrictions on claiming employment insurance benefits are preventing workers who have paid into the program from claiming money to support their families now when they need it most.
Across the country, 58 regional standards govern which Canadians are eligible for temporary assistance when laid off from their jobs and which Canadians are left to fend for themselves. This means that while most of us pay into the employment insurance program for most of our lives, we may never be eligible to receive employment insurance if we happen to lose our jobs through no fault of our own.
This assortment of regional standards is clearly not meeting the needs of the unemployed. We are seeing cases, for example, where two workers are laid off in the same factory and have paid the same amount into employment insurance but are now receiving different levels of assistance because their town just happens to straddle the border of two employment insurance regions.
In my riding of St. John's South—Mount Pearl, I recently heard from a young professional woman who in my riding found herself applying for employment insurance for the very first time because she was laid off from her job as an occupational therapist. Her hours had already been scaled back and she was working mostly part time in the months leading up to the permanent layoff. As a first time filer in my region, she needed 840 hours to qualify for benefits. The reduction in the hours over the previous months left her with only 581 insurable hours, not nearly enough to qualify.
I also think of fish plant workers, for example, from Petty Harbour who work side by side doing the same work for the same number of hours with someone from the community right next door. The person from Petty Harbour needs 630 hours to qualify and his fellow worker living nearby in the next community needs 420 hours.
In this economic situation, the employment insurance system is not right for the times and needs to be adjusted.
I believe that a temporary national 360-hour standard of employment insurance eligibility should be introduced for as long as this economic crisis in Canada persists. This would set a temporary consistent standard across the country and make it easier for workers who have lost their jobs through no fault of their own to qualify for benefits during this crucial time.
This proposal would not only mean 150,000 additional unemployed Canadians would have access to benefits, but it would also inject much needed spending in some of the hardest hit communities. Families spending money on food, rent and transportation translates into one of the most immediate, effective and direct ways to get desperately needed stimulus money flowing into our communities.
During this time of record job losses, we need to help unemployed Canadians. Implementing a national 360-hour standard to qualify for employment insurance would provide benefits for thousands of Canadians who have paid into the system and who now need help to support their families.
As we pull through this difficult economic time, it will be crucial to ensure that areas facing chronically high levels of unemployment are helped by the development of consistent standards for employment insurance and are not made to meet unreachable targets that would be impossible in other areas.
Most stakeholders strongly support the creation of a 360-hour standard for employment insurance. Social policy organizations across the country, including the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, the Canadian Labour Congress and many unions, have all advocated for a national standard.
Provincial political leaders are also calling for changes to the employment insurance system. Several premiers, including Premier McGuinty, Premier Stelmach and Premier Campbell, have all called for a national standard for employment insurance. Unfortunately, the government would rather leave Canadian families to fend for themselves than fix this crucial program.
Rather than opting to inject stimulus funding into local economies through increased employment insurance eligibility, which vulnerable families spend on groceries, transportation and housing, the government has characterized employment insurance as being too lucrative. This characterization by the minister is insulting to the thousands of Canadians struggling to make ends meet while they search for new meaningful jobs, and it is simply not true.
Families are burdened with enough concerns during these troubled economic times without adding additional confusion and apprehension about whether or not they will be able to qualify for employment insurance should they lose their jobs. I am hearing calls for clarity from workers in my riding in advance of this summer's closure of a telecommunications company in Mount Pearl, Teletech.
My constituents are concerned about whether they will qualify for benefits and would like to know if they will actually have access to some of the training programs. Clarity on qualification standards would go a long way to answering some of the many questions workers face when they know an eventual layoff, plant closure or restructuring at their place of employment is on the horizon.
Last week, in an attempt to convince Canadians her government would be taking badly needed action on this issue, the Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development simply repeated a part of the budget in place of announcing some kind of plan. The minister's reannouncement of funding for employment insurance training programs does nothing to help the thousands of Canadians who have not been lucky enough to qualify for employment insurance benefits in the first place. Not one new worker will qualify for employment insurance or benefit from this training program. These programs apply only to those who qualify for employment insurance already, leaving thousands of Canadians out in the cold.
Funding for training, while a crucial component of a strategy to address retraining and chronic unemployment, is not the full answer to this problem. If Canadians cannot qualify for this assistance in the first place, these training benefits are of no use.
In response to a question I recently asked in the House, the minister responsible for employment insurance indicated that it was becoming easier for people to access employment insurance, backing up this claim by pointing to regions of the country where so many workers have lost their jobs that the eligibility standards have changed. In her response, the minister stated, “The worse the situation gets, the easier it is for people to collect benefits”. Is that not unbelievable?
It would seem that the government's solution to the employment insurance crisis is to wait for more businesses to close, more companies to fail and more Canadians to lose their jobs so that the threshold for that region would change. This is a staggeringly inadequate strategy.
There is a clear need to undertake an intensive review of employment insurance and to carefully consider the changes that will make employment insurance more accessible during this economic crisis. Employment insurance rules have not kept pace with the changing work environment and it is time to address these shortfalls. Restrictions are preventing workers who have paid into the program from claiming benefits now to support their families when they need it most.
The government has a responsibility to help, especially during this economic crisis. It is time for the government to actually do something to help the unemployed.