Libby Calls for Employment Insurance Reform

NDP Motion on Employment Insurance Reform

House of Commons

Ms. Libby Davies (Vancouver East, NDP):
Madam Speaker, this is a very good motion before the House today and I am proud to speak to it.

The reason the NDP put this motion before the House today, which calls for some basic reforms to our employment insurance program, is because they were not contained in the budget. We looked at that budget and expected to see an economic stimulus package that would be real for people and would deliver real assistance on the ground to people but it was not there. The badly needed reform of our EI system to help people with coverage, eligibility and training was not in the budget. We, in the NDP, put this motion front and centre in Parliament to say that this is the most basic fundamental of getting it right in terms of helping people.

This morning the NDP held its third annual International Women’s Day breakfast. We had a packed house in the parliamentary restaurant, with excellent speakers. One of those speakers was Peggy Nash, the former member of Parliament for Parkdale—High Park. She spoke about what was happening to women in this country and made a very good point when she said that the strongest economic stabilizer in a recession was a sound EI system. That is the most important element that gets support and relief to people in their pocket. As my colleague from Skeena—Bulkley Valley pointed out, the money then goes back into the real economy, helps local businesses and supports families in need.

It is quite an outrage and a travesty that the budget, which was approved yesterday by the Conservative-Liberal alliance, contained virtually nothing on EI, except the one change in terms of extending EI for five weeks. The basic reforms needed to ensure that Canadian workers who are losing their jobs, the part-time workers who are being particularly hard hit and, in particular, women, there was nothing in the budget for them. The budget contained no substantial EI changes even though day after day the Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development has faced questions in the House about how absolutely pathetic the changes are that were being made. The changes are so minimal that they will not get to the people who really need them.

I want to talk about the impact on my community of Vancouver East. It is a low income community and already statistics show that regular EI claims rose 41% in December from the previous year. In January 2009, metro Vancouver lost nearly 57,000 full-time jobs and 27,000 part-time jobs, but those are only numbers. We need to translate that into the human reality and the experience of what that means in a local community and what it means for an individual worker and his or her family. In my community there are often two parents who are working. Many families have a single parent who is working, often at multiple jobs. When we see these kinds of statistics, they do not even begin to portray the difficulty and the hardships people are now facing as a result of this recession.

It seems to me that the very foundation of responsible government would be to ensure that an employment insurance program, paid for by workers and by employers, with not a dime of government money in that program, in terms of employee and employer deductions every month, would not be allowed to fail so systematically. Today we know that only 43% of people qualify for EI and only 39% of women qualify, which means that the vast majority of people who should be eligible for employment insurance when they need it, will file a claim only to find out that they do not even qualify.

I find that reprehensible. It is the most tragic failure of public policy. We have seen this year after year. The over $54 billion that was contributed by workers were literally taken by the government for other programs. The money was not used to strengthen the employment insurance program. This is the biggest ripoff of workers. We, in the NDP, feel a great sense of anger and outrage that this has taken place. It did not just begin with the current government. It began with previous governments that decided to start using these surpluses that actually belong to workers.
What could that money have been used for? For one thing, it could have been used to increase the level of eligibility, as suggested in our motion, to 60% so that at least people would be getting some modest level of income when they are unemployed.

Why would we tell people that they need to live below the poverty line, that they need to scratch day by day and week by week to put food on the table or that they need to worry about paying the rent or being evicted? That is what we are seeing with the way the program is run now.

The other important aspect is that the fund should be used to encourage training and retraining. I am sure other members find that every day people come into our constituency office and tell us that they have a part-time job that they will soon be losing and that they want to get better training. They want to know if they can access EI to do that. The answer is invariably no because the restrictions are so narrow that fewer and fewer people even qualify for that.

To add insult to injury, for the people who miraculously do qualify for something, when they go to apply they find out that they have a two week so-called waiting period. The processing times that used to take maybe 20 days are now taking more than a month, up to 40 days. We have had many complaints about that.

I want to relate that back to a separate issue, which is the lack of staff resources. I have heard the Minister of Human Resources stand in this House, with sort of a gleeful look on her face, and say that the government was providing wonderful service to people, but that is completely untrue.

Most of the Service Canada offices are completely overburdened. We should be thanking those people because they bear the brunt of complaints and grievances from people who know that they are not getting what they need. It is those front-line civil servants who are trying to do the best that they can but they do not have the resources they need to service people who have a legitimate claim to file and who need the money as quickly as possible.

We did not cover that in our motion today because it does not deal with any kind of legislative change. It deals with a lack of resources, which is the direct responsibility of the minister and the government who deliberately undermined the system and made it difficult for people, even if they do qualify, to get the help when they need it.

We now have an incredibly serious situation in just about every region across Canada. I just cannot believe that, as members of Parliament, we would not understand that we have it within our power to easily fix the wrongs that have been done. We easily can fix the system to make it accessible and ensure people are getting better coverage.

The motion before us today is about getting help to people in a recession: the money they deserve, the money they are owed and the money they paid into their own employment insurance fund.

We hope the motion will pass and that the government will finally acknowledge what it needs to do to be responsible and to ensure that people who are unemployed or who are losing their jobs do not get left out in limbo and need to hit the welfare lines and live in poverty. This is something that should not be allowed to happen in this country.