The latest changes to EI to be introduced by the Conservatives do almost nothing for the shock troops of the labour market, those who were first felled when the recession hit last year.
Bill C-50 will pass â€“ whether or not it is fast-tracked today or â€œwell-consideredâ€ in committee depends on how the procedural tactics imbedded in the bill are handled by all of the opposition parties â€“ but it is a resounding bust for those whose benefits are due to run out just about now.
It didnâ€™t seem that way just a couple of days ago.
On the first day back after Parliamentâ€™s summer break, in a political climate utterly bursting with triggers for another election, Minister Finley promised improvements in EI for unemployed long-tenured workers, up to 20 weeks of additional support for those who met the new qualifications. The announcement suggested retroactivity of these measures, so they would line up with the rest of the governmentâ€™s â€œEconomic Action Planâ€, the Conservativeâ€™s belated response to the worst economic downturn to hit Canada since the Great Depression.
The government drew a clear (and spurious) line between which of the unemployed were worthy of additional help during a period of economic crisis and which were not. But at least it seemed to be a clear line: people who had paid premiums for at least 7 out of the last 10 years, and who had not asked for more than 35 weeks of help in the previous five years.
A lot of people breathed a sigh of relief.
Many thousands of people who worked most of their lives before they got laid off have already run out of benefits before finding that next job in their community. Many more are about to run out.
Everyone is looking over their shoulder. According to the Canadian Payroll Associationâ€™s annual survey, the majority (59%) of Canadians with jobs report they would have trouble making ends meet if their paycheque was delayed by even one week. http://www.newswire.ca/en/releases/archive/September2009/14/c4808.html
So Finleyâ€™s announcement â€“ even if long-overdue and seriously limited in its scope â€“ was welcome.
Most people donâ€™t bother reading legislation. Excerpting just one clause from the bill shows why:
â€œDespite section 225 of the Budget Implementation Act, 2009, if a claimant is a claimant referred to in subsection 55(7) of the Employment Insurance Regulations who was paid less than 36 week of regular benefits in the 260 weeks before the beginning of the claimantâ€™s benefit period and that benefit period was established during the period that begins on the later of January 4, 2009 and the Sunday before the day that is nine months before the day on which this section is deemed to have come into force and ends on June 5, 2010, the number of weeks of benefits in Schedule 10 to that Act that apply in respect of that claimant is deemed to be the number of weeks that would otherwise apply in respect of the claimant but for this section increased by
(a) 5 weeks, if the claimant contributed at least 30% of the maximum annual employeeâ€™s premium in 7 of the 10 years before the beginning of the claimantâ€™s benefit period;
(b) 8 weeks, if the claimant contributed at least 30% of the maximum annual employeeâ€™s premium in 8 of the 11 years before the beginning of the claimantâ€™s benefit period;â€¦..â€
You get the idea.
Iâ€™m no lawyer, but it seemed that the wording was offering something less than what was suggested in the announcements. So I took a closer look. Hereâ€™s what the Bill being considered by Parliament says:
â€¢ Nobody who was laid off before January 2009 will be helped by these measures. This despite the fact that the financial crisis hit in October 2008, and many people in the forestry and manufacturing industries were laid off before that.
â€¢ Most people wonâ€™t get anywhere near 20 weeks of extra help.Â They could get as little as 2 weeks extra help tacked on at the back end of the duration of benefits â€“ the amount of time that was proposed, a year ago, to be eliminated from the front-end so that people didnâ€™t have to go for as long without any income as their claim was processed.
â€¢ To qualify for the full extension of benefits, you have to have been employed and paying 30% of the maximum annual contribution for 12 of the last 15 years. (So much for the definition of being â€œlong-tenuredâ€ meaning employed for 10 years.)
â€¢ You don’t qualify for any extension of benefits if you have claimed more than 35 weeks of benefits in the last 5 years.Â Â A lot of people fall into that category.Â Andrew Jackson of the Canadian Labour Congress estimates only about 10% of those who exhaust their benefits will get help.Â Â This serious change to the terms of eligibility for benefits means that we are back in the era of “repeat offenders” thinking when it comes to EI.
â€¢ Even if youâ€™ve been steadily employed for a long time and not needed EI for the past 5 or more years, if you have worked part-time or casual hours (the plightÂ of many people who are just waiting for that opening in the full-time job department) you may not qualify for the maximum duration of help, because you havenâ€™t paid enough into the kitty.
â€¢ People in businesses that have regular lay-offs for purposes of retooling, maintenance, or inventory rebalancing are deemed responsible for their reliance on EI, and not worthy of additional help. (Ah so. Being found guilty of the crime of unemployment comes with a hefty financial penalty. But if you almost collapse the financial sector you get a government bailout.)
â€¢ If you get laid off in the wrong time frame – after June 6, 2010 – even if you meet the most stringent definition of â€œlong-tenuredâ€, you get less help. Extra benefits drop by five weeks shorter as of June 6, 2010, and disappears altogether if you happen to run out of benefits this time next year.
â€¢ Every day the committees spend discussing the merits of the legislation, or ways to improve it, gets docked from the period of time the unemployed get help. The end date of improvements, September 11, 2010, is immovable. This detail is just another way that the minority Conservative government is telling Opposition members â€œour way or the highwayâ€. The sobering thing is that the highway may bring us a Conservative majority government. If this is how they operate in a minority, watch out for what liberties they will take in a majority situation.
Bill C-50 pits different categories of the unemployed against one another. It even pits people in the same boat against other people in the same boat if they donâ€™t comply with the timing of the end of the recession as viewed by the Conservative government â€“ September 11, 2010.This despite wide-spread expectations that, even if GDP shows every sign of recovery, unemployment will continue to rise throughout 2010.
This legislation guarantees that Parliamentarians will be back at the table, haggling over whether these marginal improvements should be kept in place or if the recession is actually over. The debate will be again over peopleâ€™s â€œdependenciesâ€ rather than how bad the economy is, and what lousy options the average unemployed or underemployed working person has.
Bill C-50 ends with the â€œcoming into forceâ€ section, which is a masterpiece of deliberate confusion. Some sections of the legislation are retroactive to September 12, 2009, some are effective the day of royal assent, and some things come into force â€œthe second Sunday before the day on which this Act receives royal assentâ€. The Conservatives benefited from similar language for quick passage of the budget bill. The same type of wording was used in the section dealing with EI reforms. It came as some surprise to members on the committee, discussing the adequacy of the measures to deal with the economic crisis, that every day they talked about it was a day less that the unemployed were getting help.
The Conservatives are again playing Parliament like a fiddle, and members of the Opposition risk getting Conned once again. I donâ€™t envy them. Millions of economically insecure Canadians rely on these men and women who have the thankless task of deciding whether this is enough, whether it can be further improved, whether we could or should live with a minority government that is so indifferent to so many Canadians.Â This is a minority government that looks dimly on input for crafting public policy in these troubled times, rejecting not only the views of the opposition parties, but even those of their own back-benchers.
Memo from the Prime Minister’s Office to the unemployed and the rest of Parliament: it sucks to be you.