Employment Insurance: Help for those who didn't cause the crisis - PM should do the right thing and bolster benefits
By Wayne Fraser
As all Canadians familiar with front-page drama know, the following days, weeks or months could produce a new coalition federal government in our country. If that change happens, and I hope it does, our new government will need to move quickly and move in a direction that helps not only the suits on Bay Street but the average Canadian who lives on Main Street.
After all, Stephen Harper has so far failed to offer a stimulus package for an economy grinding to a halt. No one is interested in changing governments just for the sake of political drama – or to further the career of some politicians at the expense of others. What Canadians need is a significant change in direction and most urgently, immediate measures to help those most seriously affected by unemployment and poverty.
No one knows for sure how bad our economic situation will get, but hundreds of thousands more unemployed Canadians are a real likelihood over the next two years. For Ottawa, more unemployment is an acceptable price for remaining true to "free" trade principles and preserving globalization in times of recession.
But while whoever is in charge is handing out billions of dollars, we must make sure that laid-off workers and their families are not forgotten.
Our federal government must do right by those who are most vulnerable. Specifically, The Steelworkers Union wants the country's Employment Insurance system to be radically improved so that it does what it ought to do: help workers maintain a decent standard of living and their dignity during tough times.
Canadians know that over $50 billion of EI contributions have been diverted from the EI fund and are being used to help Ottawa boast about its supposed fiscal responsibility. It is far from greedy to ask for some of that money back. Workers' contributions have made EI possible. They paid in and now it's time for them to be paid back. Here is our five-point plan:
Let's do away with the two-week waiting period before a worker receives their cheque or bank deposit. What justifies this measure anyway? Do landlords, when they learn that their tenants have been laid-off, come cheerfully by to announce, "Don't worry about November's rent. I know you're waiting."? Certainly those who collect the gas bill aren't so charitable.
Let's get benefits to a liveable level and also increase the maximum allowable earnings before the clawbacks kick in. In 2007, the average weekly benefit for someone on EI was $317.65. Who do politicians think they are kidding, countenancing that level of economic desperation for others, when they would never accept such a situation for themselves? Consider that, since the maximum benefit lasts some 45 weeks, the most that such an average beneficiary could get is $14,294.25. With the poverty line pegged at around $24,000 per annum, that's simply shameful.
We demand that benefits be extended to two years. Decent jobs, jobs to feed a family on, are not growing on trees. They will become scarcer still in the coming months (if not years). Out of work through no fault of their own (and often due to deliberate government policy), Canadians should have a decent income for the time it takes them to find adequate employment.
Let's exclude severance pay from the calculation of worker eligibility. In an era when huge quantities of aid are handed out to the powerful with limited strings attached, we ought to stop measuring and begrudging every dime transferred to those without work. Let workers access their EI right away and use their severance to meet other pressing needs. We don't expect laid-off workers to sell their homes or empty their savings accounts before they can receive EI, so why should we demand that they use their severance pay?
Finally, the government must loosen eligibility criteria so as to make EI accessible to greater numbers. No system can be said to serve the unemployed when it denies benefits to a majority trapped, for example, in part-time, seasonal or stop-and-go temporary work. Before 1996, workers only needed 150 insurable hours of work to qualify for benefits. In today's Canadian cities, they typically need to have put in well over 600 hours on the job in the previous year in order to take advantage of a program they helped fund. That's far from good enough.
The Government, whether it's a coalition or not, needs to show some real leadership in making sure that any stimulus package protects the interests of all the stakeholders in our society, including working people and their families.
The coalition has already indicated that E.I. improvement would figure in its agenda. That's welcome news. But regardless of who is in charge, now is the time for the feds to show some compassion and do the right thing.
Mr. Fraser is The Director for Ontario and the Atlantic Provinces of the United Steelworkers Union.