Our Employment Insurance system just wasn't built for a national crisis of this scope. More than 40% of the unemployed in this country aren't eligible for EI, even though they have paid into the system. As a result, Canadians aren't getting the help they need when they need it.
That's why we have to reform EI. Improving eligibility will bring help to workers who have paid in but don't currently qualify. It is also the most effective, rapid and targeted form of stimulus the government can offer our economy right now.
We're facing a single, national crisis. But EI maintains 58 different regional standards of eligibility. That doesn't make sense.
The distortions produced by the current EI rules are striking.
Unemployment is up 83% in Alberta and 68% in B. C. -- but it's still twice as hard to qualify for EI in Western Canada as it is elsewhere in the country.
The rules end up pitting worker against worker. In Magog, Que., 200 people who lost their jobs at Gurit Canada at the same time and who have paid the same EI benefits are now receiving different levels of assistance because their town happens to straddle the border of two EI regions.
The Liberal party has proposed a national, 360-hour standard of EI eligibility, for as long as this crisis lasts. If implemented quickly, up to 150,000 more Canadians -- who've lost their jobs through no fault of their own and who have paid into the system --could qualify for EI benefits.
That kind of change will have a positive effect on the Canadian economy.
One-hundred-and-fifty-thousand more unemployed Canadians on EI mean 150,000 more Canadian families spending on food, rent and transportation. It means money flowing into communities that have been hit the hardest by this recession.
Day after day in the House of Commons, Conservatives have defended the current EI system. Their evidence that it works well is perverse: They point to regions of the country where so many people have lost their jobs that, under the current rules, it's now easier to qualify for EI than it was before.
The Conservative government's answer to the crisis in EI eligibility is to wait for more Canadians to lose their jobs. That's wrong.
In the closing weeks of the spring session of Parliament, the Conservative government has a choice to make. Stephen Harper can continue to resist a good idea simply because someone else thought of it first. Or else he can make a simple but critical change to EI that will provide benefits for thousands of Canadians who have paid into the system and who now need that money to support their families.
One guest, Craig Alexander, had a very interesting point about the effectiveness of various types of stimulus. The type of stimulus with the highest rated multiplier is EI with a level of 1.6. Infrastructure is close behind at 1.59. But EI gets into the economy faster which is important if the recession is short and shallow as some forecasters predict. Mr. Alexander mentioned that he had made a representation to the Finance Department on this. Funny this didn't seem to have made an impression.