EI rolls swell in May as labour market stalls

Nearly 780,000 Canadians collected Employment Insurance during May — the highest figure since Statistics Canada began tracking that data in 1997.

CALGARY — Nearly 780,000 Canadians collected Employment Insurance during May — the highest figure since Statistics Canada began tracking that data in 1997.

The most pronounced spikes were in Alberta, where weak oil and gas prices have eaten away at activity, and Ontario, where blue-collar industries such as the auto industry have been hemorrhaging jobs.

The EI rolls swelled to 778,700, a 9.2 per cent increase from April’s figures.

Since the recession took hold in October of last year, the number of recipients has grown by 278,300, or 55.6 per cent.

In Alberta, where the economy has been hit hard by dramatic drops in commodity prices, there were 57,000 regular EI beneficiaries in May, a nearly 17 per cent rise from April’s figures.

Eric Hoch, 46, has been looking for work as a computer programmer for the past six months.

“My phone isn’t ringing,” he said, while waiting at a Labour Market Information Centre in downtown Calgary.

“The industry just kind of dried up.”

Hoch is able to collect EI, but he said getting the set up proved to be a hassle, especially since a lot of work he does is on contract.

“In theory the process runs smoothly, but I found that just to keep my claim active I had to go down in person to the EI office at least six times,” he said.

“When you go to claim your EI you’ve got to smooth over all those wrinkles, even if it means not seeing any money for a couple months. I’d just say it’s out of date. They’re just not in touch with what’s happening out in the job market.”

Just a year ago, Alberta had an extremely tight labour pool, with businesses so desperate for workers that they recruited from across Canada.

But since markets began to tank last year, the number of Albertans on EI has risen each month, for a total increase of 38,800.

“There’s no way around it. Alberta’s labour market has softened considerably over the past year,” said Todd Hirsch, senior economist with ATB Financial in Calgary.

However, Hirsch noted that the surge in Alberta’s EI claims rose so dramatically because they had nowhere to go but up.

“It’s jumped up tremendously since last year. But it’s because we were starting at such a ridiculously low level,” he said.

The unemployment rate ballooned from 3.7 per cent to 6.6 per cent, still well below the national rate in May of 8.4 per cent.

The Mustard Seed Street Ministry in Calgary has seen an influx of tradespeople and other blue-collar workers use its job search and computer training resources since the recession hit last fall, said career development facilitator Jeremy Siemens.

“When the economy was really booming, a lot of people could easily find a job without a resume or even without a journeyman’s certificate,” he said.

“But now employers have a lot more pick of the litter, I guess. They’re hiring the guys that have the credentials and now the guys who don’t are just kind of stuck.”

The trend hit home in April, when Siemens took a few clients to job fair, where in past years hundreds of employers set up booths.

This year, there were only handful, Siemens said.

“Bringing a few guys over there with their resumes ready to go … you can imagine how deflating that must have been.”

Advocates at the ministry help guests fill out their EI claims, but many are not eligible because they have just arrived in Canada as refugees or have gaps in their work history due to a mental illness or other issues.

After Alberta, Ontario saw the next biggest percentage rise in EI recipients, with a 16 per cent jump to 274,100 between April and May.

Slumping U.S. demand and the global credit crunch have hurt the automotive, mining and forestry industries in Canada’s most populous province. Scores of jobs have been lost as General Motors (NYSE:GM) and Chrysler restructured.

April to May, the number of EI recipients grew by 6.2 per cent in British Columbia and 5.8 per cent in Saskatchewan, which has the lowest unemployment rate in the country

Since last October, the Atlantic provinces, Quebec, and Manitoba have posted smaller increases than the national average of 55.6 per cent.