Edmonton, Saskatchewan, B.C. now meet requirements for extra EI, documents show

The federal Liberals are facing renewed pressure to offer extended EI benefits to three regions in the West that now meet the government's qualifications.

OTTAWA — The federal Liberals are facing renewed pressure to offer extended EI benefits to three regions in the West that now meet the government’s qualifications.

Internal documents obtained by The Canadian Press explain why certain regions didn’t qualify for the help, which was aimed specifically at areas hit hard by a prolonged downturn in commodity prices.

The federal budget gave the extended EI benefits to 12 economic regions of the country, but left out Edmonton, southern Saskatchewan and B.C.’s southern interior. All three would now qualify under the government’s formula when the latest unemployment figures are taken into account.

St. Catharines, Ont., is one-tenth of a percentage point short of qualifying.

Alberta Premier Rachel Notley plans to push Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to extend the package to Edmonton when the Liberal visits Alberta on Friday.

Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall said Thursday the federal government needs “to do the right thing.”

“The original mistake made by the federal government could’ve have been fixed without this, but now it’s even more of a reason that they would want to make the adjustment and extend the benefits to those who are on employment insurance in the areas of our oilpatch, the southeast and the southwest,” Wall said.

NDP EI critic Niki Ashton said the issue was about “making sure Canadians can access the EI fund that belongs to them.” Conservative critic John Barlow said the Liberals should have done more due diligence before making “such a unilateral decision.”

In the House of Commons, Rodger Cuzner, parliamentary secretary to Labour Minister MaryAnn Mihychuk, said the government was reviewing the latest unemployment figures and the Liberals would respond appropriately.

The federal budget banked $582 million over the next two years to add five weeks of regular benefits to workers in qualifying regions, effective this July but retroactive to January 2015.

Long-tenured workers in the 12 regions identified in the budget could also see an extra 20 weeks of benefits, to a maximum of 70 weeks — again, starting this July but retroactive to January of last year.

Qualifying regions had unemployment rates that were at least two per cent higher over three consecutive months between July 2015 and March 2016 from the baseline rate, defined as the lowest unemployment rate recorded between December 2014 and February 2015.

To qualify, regions also had to show no “significant signs of recovery,” the Employment Canada documents show. That means the unemployment rate after the three-month stretch didn’t fall back to within one per cent of the baseline.

St. Catharines had two consecutive months of unemployment two per cent over the baseline and a third at 1.9 per cent over.

University of Calgary economist Trevor Tombe said at least two more regions, Yellowknife and Thunder Bay, could qualify next month provided the unemployment rate does not drop significantly.

Tombe said the government wasn’t transparent enough in its budget for Canadians to understand how the 12 regions were selected, leading places like Edmonton and southern Saskatchewan to feel they were left out for “less than objective reasons.”

The documents say the recent rise in unemployment in the selected areas has “stretched the responsiveness of the EI system.” The issue is compounded because new work for jobless oilpatch workers is harder to find when the whole sector is hit.

The government has started fast-tracking EI claims from displaced residents of Fort McMurray and sent Service Canada workers into reception centres and nearby coffee shops to help anyone needing to file a claim.

The government is also moving ahead with a review of EI services to reverse a widely held belief that people aren’t getting the level of service they expect when they file a claim or call Service Canada with an EI-related question. Figures provided by the department show that in the last year, more than a million callers hung up because they were on hold for too long.

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