Long EI waits leave Albertans struggling: Hundreds turn to welfare system

CALGARY- When Heather Eide applied for employment insurance, she didn't expect she'd have to wait more than two months.

At 23, she had never been laid off before. She was a full-time administrator at a pension company in Calgary until mid-March and thought she'd find a new job easily.

But with Alberta's economy sinking deeper into recession, Eide, a single mother of a toddler with no savings to help her, soon found herself evicted from her rental home, dependent on handouts from her family until her first unemployment cheque arrived.

"Ten weeks was way too long to wait. How is anybody going to survive?" she said.

Aside from financially straining laid-off workers, Employment and Immigration Minister Hector Goudreau said Alberta's average 10-week wait--among the longest in the country--is putting pressure on provincial coffers, as more and more people without savings are turning to the welfare system for relief.

I n April, 523 Albertans waiting for EI were granted aid from Alberta Works welfare program, a 120 per cent spike from 238 in December. The federal government eventually reimburses the province for these funds.

"There is no reason why it should take 10 weeks. That's not acceptable," Goudreau said.

The length of time jobless Albertans are waiting for employment insurance is one of several reforms the provincial government is seeking to an "inequitable" federal program.

In a sense, the province's unprecedented economic growth, which stalled only months ago, is now handcuffing jobless Albertans.

Long EI waits are mainly due to federal government staffing levels based on boom-time jobless rates below four per cent. Ottawa is attempting to address this issue by adding staff and processing Albertans' applications in other provinces, but Goudreau said it's too soon to tell whether the delay is easing. (Human Resources and Skills Development, the federal department responsible for EI, did not respond Friday to questions about the delay.)

While the EI wait is frustrating many unemployed Albertans, a larger number of them don't even qualify for the insurance program funded by employers and employees.

Jobless Albertans, who face tougher eligibility rules than almost anyone else in the country because of the province's relatively low unemployment rate, are least likely to receive EI, according to statistics compiled by the Alberta Federation of Labour.

Of the 123,000 unemployed Albertans in March, only about one-third are receiving insurance benefits, compared to 46 per cent in British Columbia, 57 per cent in Quebec, and more than 90 per cent in Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland.

Meanwhile, Alberta's jobless rate has risen rapidly since the global economic downturn hit. In May, the rate jumped to 6.6 per cent, the highest level since October 1996 and a stark increase from 3.7 per cent in October.

The number of Albertans relying on the province's welfare program is also growing, to 34,143 in May, a 27 per cent increase from October.
Provincial disgruntlement with the federal EI program has been strongest in the West, while on the federal political stage, the Liberals have threatened to force an election over the issue.

Days after the Harper Conservatives and the Ignatieff Liberals agreed to create a working group to examine Canada's employment insurance system over the summer, a package of proposed reforms surfaced from Western premiers and territorial leaders at their annual meeting, held last week in Dawson City, Yukon.

They want the EI program streamlined from 58 regions to three -- urban, rural and remote -- and are calling for more equitable support regardless of where people live.

Currently, laid-off workers in regions with higher employment rates require more hours on the job to qualify for benefits than those living in areas with worse employment prospects.

The range varies from 420 hours to 700 hours. The length of EI payments also hinges on employment rates.

Premier Ed Stelmach views the system as a "transfer of wealth out of the West to Eastern Canada."

"Today there's quite a difference between the number of hours worked to qualify for EI in Eastern Canada compared to Western Canada, so that is a disparity," he told a radio talk show on Friday.

"An employed family is equally unemployed, whether they live in Nova Scotia, Quebec or in Alberta."

Last week's decision to create a federal EI working group concerns the Canadian Federation of Independent Business.

Spokesman Dan Kelly said small businesses want the federal opposition parties' proposal for a national eligibility standard of 360 hours off the table.

Kelly contends lowering the EI threshold will discourage unemployed people from looking for work or moving to regions with better job prospects, potentially exasperating labour shortages in the future.
The business group also has reservations about the Conservative government's desire to extend EI payments to self-employed Canadians.

"From a practical level, how is that even workable? How can you lay yourself off?" Kelly questioned.

Goudreau shares some of Kelly's reservations about potential EI reforms, saying a balance must be struck.

"We don't want to make employment insurance so good and so readily available that people don't want to go to work," Alberta's employment minister said.

Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan dismisses this notion, however. Given the choice between working or drawing on temporary EI benefits, McGowan believes most Canadians would choose to work.

McGowan supports adopting a 360-hour national standard. The union also wants the ceiling on benefits raised to 70 per cent of an employee's earnings.

"These are not handouts. This is money workers have set aside themselves to help through hard times," McGowan said.

"The problem is not that the benefits are too generous. The problem is there are not enough jobs to go around."

In Calgary, the city's growing ranks of jobless workers can be felt at the Calgary Workers' Resource Centre.

The centre helps workers file claims and appeals for employment insurance, worker compensation and human rights abuses.

It noticed a marked increase in the first three months of 2009 compared to the same period last year--269 claims and appeals versus 70 in 2008. EI issues make up 90 per cent of the files, said centre director Xavier Cattarinich.

Like McGowan, Cattarinich believes a lower, uniform qualifying threshold is needed.

He said bolstering Canada's EI system will help reduce poverty, crime and welfare cases.

"You can pay now or much more later down the road," he said.

As politicians squabble over EI reform, Heather Eide wonders how she and her young daughter will manage on $1,400 a month.

Her employment insurance cheque is less than half of what she was making at a Calgary pension company. Eide's monthly rent alone is $1,350 in the new home her mother helped secure after her eviction.
Eide's EI payments are set to end after 27 weeks.

"For how much I paid into EI over the years, it's totally not enough," she said.

"Nobody can live off $1,400 a month."

Eide hopes to find a job paying close to the $20-an-hour wage she once made, but she's not feeling optimistic.

She's noticed wages in her line of work have dropped to about $14 an hour.

"I have been applying to everything that has an income level that I need," she said. "The market is just so terrible right now. I'm not even getting calls back for jobs I don't want."

Calgary Herald, Mon Jun 21 2009
Byline: Renata D'aliesio

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