With their backs once again to the wall, the Conservatives today announced that they will, at long last, propose additional measures to help the unemployed, something almost everyone inside and outside Parliament has been asking them to do for the better part of a year.
They will extend employment insurance benefits by another 5 to 20 weeks for those who qualify to their new rules, a move they claim will help about 190,000 unemployed Canadians â€“ people who are already protected by Employment Insurance provisions, but are running out of time. But they will only qualify for the new help if they meet all sorts of other conditions that make them the â€œdeservingâ€ unemployed in the Conservativesâ€™ eyes â€“ long-term tenure at their job, and not having made a claim for help in the past.
A little reality check is in order:
As of August, there were over 1.6 million unemployed Canadians. About half of them were in receipt of jobless benefits. What was the other half doing?
A recent HRSDC report noted that in 2008, 25% of the unemployed were still actively looking for work 12 months after being laid off. Thatâ€™s been roughly the proportion of long-term unemployed for the past five years. That percentage will rise now, as it always does during a recession.
That means today at least 400,000 people, possibly more, fall in the category of the long-term unemployed.
According to the government, less than half (190,000) might be helped by the measures announced today.
Certainly any improvement to protections for the unemployed is welcome. But why have we had to wait so long for so little from our federal government, during the deepest economic downturn since the Great Depression, and with Canadians more exposed to the economic risks of unemployment than at any time since the Second World War?
There is a nagging concern that the government is again playing politics with this announcement, and overestimating the good news. Is there any reason to believe these numbers arenâ€™t just as wildly hopeful â€“ and off â€“ as the number of jobs they said their stimulus package would create?
Among those making claims for EI in 2007-08, 57% (the majority) had been in receipt of benefits at some point in the last five years. Thatâ€™s because of the nature of much of our industry: assembly lines in manufacturing, oil rigs, even the forestry industry gets periodically shut down for maintenance and retooling, or if demand falls off with seasonal variations, as it often does. Many of these people, whether long-term workers or not, may not be deemed sufficiently worthy of extended help.
The estimated 190,000 people that might benefit from the new measures may be as inflated as the 140,000 jobs the Conservative stimulus package was supposed to create (190,000 jobs including the provincial leg of it).
After 10 months of recession and almost half a year of infrastructure and renovating stimulus, there are 387,000 fewer jobs on offer. The loss of 486,000 full time opportunities has been offset by the creation of 98,000 part time jobs. This includes both employees and the self-employed. Comparing August 2008 to August 2009, there are 56,000 fewer employees, and 100,000 more people who have hung out their shingle as hopefully self-employed.
The temporary measures announced today cannot be seen as a significant response to the larger scale transformations of the labour market that this recession is unleashing. More people are grabbing whatever kind of work is out there, at lower wages, lower or no benefits, and less control over working hours than ever before.
In 2008, 9.3% of the unemployed didnâ€™t have enough insurable hours of work under the highly complex EI system to qualify for unemployment insurance benefits. Assuming, again, that this proportion has not risen since, the needs of at least another 150,000 unemployed Canadians are not addressed by this governmentâ€™s reforms.
That makes roughly 350,000 unemployed Canadians who are left dangling in the wind.
What will these hundreds of thousands of people do? Scramble for any job, under any terms, and look for a cheaper place to live.
This kind of economic dislocation was more avoidable in the past. In the recession of the 1990s, it took the equivalent of 255 hours to qualify for help if you lost your job in a region with 8-9% unemployment; in the recession of the 1980s, it took the equivalent of 165 hours. Today you need 595 hours of insurable work to get help, and up to 900 hours if you have asked for help in the past.
The call to lower eligibility requirements so that more people can have an income bridge to their next job has fallen on deaf ears, even though virtually every party and extra-parliamentary body has weighed in on the importance of providing more generous help so that we donâ€™t unnecessarily prolong hard economic times.
Harper and his Conservative government may think theyâ€™ve taken EI reforms off the table as an election issue, but restoring genuine help for the unemployed remains part of the unfinished business of this recession.