Finley announces $60 million to bolster EI system
The federal government announced Tuesday it is spending $60 million to bolster the Employment Insurance system, as the number of laid-off Canadian workers continues to surge.
The money, Human Resources Minister Diane Finley said, will be used to hire more staff, process claims more quickly and extend the period of coverage by five weeks.
She said the hiring process has already begun, and many of the new workers are EI specialists who had recently retired.
"We have already hired a few hundred people and we will hire a few hundred more to reach our objective of delivering benefits as efficiently and rapidly as possible," Finley said in Ottawa.
Earlier Tuesday, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty said unemployment has increased in recent months, and he expects it to continue to worsen before the global recession begins to abate.
Statistics Canada recently pegged the nation's jobless rate at 7.7 per cent last month -- the highest level in over five years.
Roughly 300,000 Canadian jobs have evaporated in the past four months -- more than 82,000 in February alone.
The opposition parties said that Tuesday's announcement will not help the thousands of Canadians whose benefits have been delayed because the government was unprepared for the spike in demand.
Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff charged during question period Tuesday "that the government is trying to patch EI with duct tape while evading the real issue, which is eligibility."
Prime Minister Stephen Harper responded that "as employment conditions become more difficult, eligibility becomes easier" for Canadians.
Earlier on Tuesday, NDP finance critic Thomas Mulcair said MPs have faced a deluge of calls from constituents who say there have been delays in their benefits.
"Ask any one of the 307 other members of Parliament and you will be told the same thing," Mulcair said. "It's a catastrophe right now administratively (and) what she is proposing right now is a Band-Aid solution."
When making her announcement, Finley said the EI system has so far been able to meet its objective of processing 80 per cent of EI claims within 28 days.
The new staff, along with measures to automate and streamline the application process, are intended to keep the rate within that target, she said.
"The minister was clearly demonstrating the position from the government that we're following through with what we said we would do and we're dealing with a surge in Employment Insurance claims," said CTV's Graham Richardson, in Ottawa.
Finley also said the EI system is adjusted regionally every month, based on local economic conditions.
In Oshawa, she said, laid-off workers can apply for benefits two weeks earlier, and can claim them for four weeks longer, than elsewhere due to the high number of people who have lost their jobs in the auto sector.
The measures announced Tuesday were the result of consultations held across the country, Finley said, noting that most people told the government they wanted EI to last longer at the back end.
The opposition parties would like to see the EI system revamped further, to include the many part-time and self-employed workers who are ineligible for benefits.
Liberal MP Michael Savage pointed out that only 23,700 more Canadians applied for benefits in January, a month that saw 129,000 jobs disappear.
"Where is the rest of them, why don't they qualify for employment insurance benefits?" he asked.
"This is an unusual time. This is not a 24-hour flu bug. It's something that's going to take a long time to recover from and the Conservatives don't understand that," Mulcair added.
Some analysts believe the unemployment rate will rise above 10 per cent and 600,000 jobs will have been lost before the recession ends.
Finley indicated that the EI program can be adjusted according to changing employment conditions. However, she would not say whether the government is considering extending benefits to those who currently do not qualify.
"There are a great number of forecasters out there and they are changing their forecasts every single week. We cannot change our plan every single week," she said.
With files from The Canadian Press