Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says he will “monitor and review” changing economic circumstances in Canada’s various regions, but won’t commit to expanding Employment Insurance benefits beyond 12 hard-hit regions named in last week’s budget, despite criticism that some laid-off workers will get paid up to $13,425 more than others, depending on their postal codes.

“We’ve identified 12 of the hardest hit areas across the country and have targeted our extra measures to those regions and will continue to review and monitor as other regions of the country face greater (challenges) or recover better,” Trudeau told reporters after meeting with laid-off workers in Calgary.

Calgary is one of the 12 regions where all EI claimants will soon be able to get at least 50 weeks of benefits, up from 45 weeks, and where “long-tenured workers” will see a boost from 50 weeks of benefits to as many as 70 weeks.

The one-year measure will start this July and extend retroactively to Jan. 4. 2015. A laid-off worker in any of the dozen regions identified will get up to $13,425 of extra income support, maxing out at $34,905, compared to $21,480 now.

Many in Alberta have questioned why workers in Calgary are eligible for the extension but those in Edmonton are not, considering that the number of people claiming EI rose more in Edmonton (2.4 per cent) than in Calgary (1.7 per cent) from January 2015 to January 2016, a period when an estimated 100,000 oil and gas workers across Canada lost their jobs.

Others have pointed out that oil and gas workers laid off from the same company will end up receiving vastly different amounts of money because of where they live.

Laid-off cook Patricia Gray, 69, said she finds it offensive that corporate oil sector workers in Calgary will get extended benefits, while work camp employees based in Edmonton will not.

“I just can't understand for the life of me why our elected officials have let this happen,” she said. “It makes no sense to me.”

“Where do I go to look for a job?” she added. “I’m 69. Nobody will hire me.”

Oil and gas worker Duncan Young told CTV Edmonton he has worked all over northern Alberta, but will miss out of the benefits because his permanent address is technically in Edmonton.

Edmonton’s Chief Economist John Rose pointed out that Saskatoon’s workers are getting the extended benefits because their unemployment rates shot up more than two per cent, but that city still has a lower unemployment rate (6.3 per cent) than Edmonton (6.8 per cent).

Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall has also questioned why some resource-based regions are excluded but others are not.

Trudeau said the EI system has “always taken into account local and regional factors,” adding that “losing one’s job in one particular area may have much different challenges in terms of finding a new job than losing one’s job in another area.”

The prime minister said other changes to EI, including reducing the waiting period for benefits from two weeks to one week and making it easier for first-time claimants will help laid-off workers across the country.

The regions chosen, according to the budget, are “those where the unemployment rate increased by two percentage points or more for a sustained period between March 2015 and February 2016, compared to its lowest point between December 2014 and February 2015, without showing significant signs of recovery.” Edmonton’s unemployment rate increased 1.8 per cent over that period.

Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Labour MaryAnn Mihychuk told CTV’s Power Play that the extended benefits are “an emergency measure for Alberta and other regions that were severely impacted.”

Mihychuk stressed that the government has completed only its “first phase” of and EI review.

She acknowledged that there is “a very strong, valid argument saying, ‘hey we both work at the same company and Joe gets more benefits than I do.’”

Mihychuk said the EI system is “extremely cumbersome” with 62 different regions, and that there have been different levels of support have long been awarded based on local conditions.

Conservative MP Andrew Scheer told Power Play he thinks failure to extend benefits to areas like southern Saskatchewan and Edmonton region is “mean-spirited” and “very cold-hearted.”

However, the Saskatchewan MP said “any change to EI doesn’t change the fundamental problem … that we have a government that’s not promoting energy projects, that’s not helping get our oil and gas to markets.”

“They’ve blocked pipelines, they’ve refused to back the Energy East, they’ve killed the Northern Gateway pipeline,” Scheer said. “There isn’t any amount of EI that will help get people back to work.”

When Trudeau spoke, he stressed to reporters he has repeatedly outlined “a need to make sure we’re getting our resources to market in responsible sustainable ways.”

The NDP’s Matthew Dube told Power Play he doesn’t think the current system for awarding EI benefits is fair. “There are still 800,000 Canadians that don’t have access to EI who need it,” he said.

The plan to extend benefits in the 12 regions is expected to cost $405 million this year and $177 million next year, according to the budget.

The budget also commits $92 million to speed up processing of benefit applications and respond to EI-related queries.

The 12 regions that will be eligible for extended benefits are:

  • Newfoundland/Labrador
  • Sudbury
  • Northern Ontario
  • Northern Manitoba
  • Saskatoon
  • Northern Saskatchewan
  • Calgary
  • Northern Alberta
  • Southern Alberta
  • Northern British Columbia
  • Whitehorse
  • Nunavut

With a report from CTV National News Parliamentary Correspondent Richard Madan