Opposition says relax EI

OTTAWA — Opposition critics are calling on the Harper government to relax employment insurance rules after a new report suggested qualifying for benefits appears harder than ever.

OTTAWA — Opposition critics are calling on the Harper government to relax employment insurance rules after a new report suggested qualifying for benefits appears harder than ever.

Statistics Canada said Monday only 78.4 per cent of unemployed Canadians were eligible for benefits last year, at about the time when the government saved about $1.9 billion in EI payouts.

The rate is the lowest since the agency started collecting comparable data in 2003, and it’s down from 83.9 per cent the previous year.

“This is another signpost that the EI system is fundamentally flawed and the government needs to get serious about comprehensive EI reform,” said NDP critic Chris Charlton.

“What we’re seeing is that far too many people are working in part-time, temporary and precarious jobs, so clearly folks who used to have decent jobs are now accepting (part-time work) and don’t qualify for EI when they lose those.”

She added that the benefits are not government money, but funds Ottawa collects from workers and employers to support Canadians who lose their jobs.

The problem will likely get worse, said Liberal labour critic Rodger Cuzner, given that changes introduced this year will compel repeat EI beneficiaries to travel further afield for jobs, or to take work that pays less.

“I hate to the ominous voice of doom, but the changes they’ve made… are going to hurt families and will have a big impact on provincial welfare rolls,” he said.

Current rules require EI contributors to have worked 420 to 700 hours, depending on the unemployment rate in their region, to qualify for benefits.

First-time employees, or those with limited work experience in the past two years, need 910 hours.

Given the relatively high 7.4 per cent unemployment rate and elevated levels of part-time workers — about 19 per cent — eligibility rules need to be relaxed, the critics said.

The Canadian Labour Congress, as well as the NDP, has proposed a 360 hour threshold, which would capture many laid off part-timers.

In the Commons, Conservative MP Kellie Leitch defended the program, noting that almost 80 per cent of those eligible did qualify for benefits.

Monday’s report found there was on average of 1.34 million people unemployed in 2011.