End of extended benefits draws reactions both for and against

The expiry of the deadline to apply for Ottawa’s extended employment insurance benefits package may have passed quietly Saturday, but it is drawing some loud and varied reactions.

Many New Brunswickers who are directly or indirectly employed by traditional and seasonal industries like forestry and fishing rely on employment insurance to make ends meet, and the province’s economic uncertainty has forced many to lean heavier on the help.

And yet employers who pay into the employment insurance funds and are looking for more workers aren’t necessarily sad to say goodbye to the package, which offers an extra five weeks of regular employment insurance benefits and up to 20 weeks of additional benefits for longer-serving employees.

It should be noted that although it is now too late to apply for the extended benefits, the extended benefits themselves won’t actually run out until August 2011 for Canadians who are receiving them now, or those who applied before Sept. 11.

But Christian Brun of the Maritime Fishermen’s Union thinks the recovery of the economy in rural and coastal New Brunswick is still too fragile to let this effective stimulus program come to an end.

Brun said he understands the federal government introduced the extended employment insurance package last year as a temporary stimulus measure with a clear end date, but thinks the deadline should be reconsidered based on the still shaky economy.

“Sometimes we need to re-evaluate things and I am wondering just how strong this economy is going to be in order to pull out of the economic problems we’ve had, and if we’re going to be able to maintain growth without re-evaluating it,” he said.

“I would hedge toward the cautious side because of what happened in 2008 and I don’t think they’re doing that.”

The MFU’s membership consists of fishermen who aren’t directly impacted by the extended benefits packages because they receive a very specific type of employment insurance that doesn’t qualify for the extended benefits offered by the federal Conservatives’ stimulus programs.

However, Brun said fishermen are integrated into coastal economies that are still depending heavily on help from employment insurance as the embattled American economy continues to keep prices here low.

“Some are working in plants, some are working as crew men, some are working in the business they are doing the accounting and they are receiving (employment insurance) in some cases,” said Brun.

“There were secondary benefits for this industry, and of course it’s affecting everyone living in coastal Canada to have (extended employment insurance benefits) limited.”

Charles Cirtwill of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies said the extended employment insurance weeks were likely more effective in propping up Canada’s economy than some of the lavish infrastructure spending that occurred over the past two years.

“I would much prefer to see stimulus target individuals rather than going to build a rink in every backyard,” he said.

But he said it isn’t fiscally prudent to let temporary spending stimulus program continue indefinitely.

“Now is time to shut down most of the responses we put in place when we decided to respond to fiscal meltdown,” said Cirtwill.

“They already told everybody these were temporary programs. One of the good things they did with lots of the bad spending is to put dates on it. The worst thing they could do now is start ‘monkeying’ with those dates.”

Cirtwill added that the federal government hasn’t arbitrarily decided the recession has ended. He said labour statistics show unemployed workers have regained confidence in the job market and have returned to the job hunt.

And he said those who pay for employment insurance benefits shouldn’t be forgotten.

“Employers don’t look at EI as a bottomless pit, and people who have never drawn EI but who have paid into it all of their lives don’t see it as a bottomless pit.”

Cirtwill said the extended benefits have already created most of the impact possible.

“Are there more long-term unemployed people who would like to receive extended EI benefits for another year who haven’t already received them?”

Dalhousie-Restigouche East Liberal candidate Donald Arseneault, who was minister of post-secondary education, training, and labour, said he was a big fan of the federal government’s extended employment insurance benefits package when it was introduced last year and he is calling on Ottawa to further extend it.

“There is no doubt the economy is slowly recovering but we do need at the very least another year of this program to make sure we are truly out of this recession,” said Arseneault.

However, Ryan Sparrow, a spokesman for the federal Human Resources Minister Diane Finley, said the end date of the program was made clear when it was introduced.

He said it is important for Canadians to understand that although it is no longer possible to apply for the extended benefits as of Sept. 11, people who made an application before that date, and people who are currently receiving extended benefits, won’t be affected.

“Claimants that are currently in the process as of Sept. 11 of this year are eligible to receive (extended) benefits until August 2011,” he said.

“Even if you are currently being processed you are still eligible to your maximum if you qualify.” Alongside infrastructure spending, the extended employment insurance package was part of a two-year, $47-billion spending program that comes to an end on March 31, 2011.”We’re committed to a balanced budget and to achieve this we must wind down the temporary Economic Action Plan as planned,” Sparrow said.

“Employment insurance is paid for by Canadian workers and Canadian businesses, so the more you use the system the more it costs.”

Sparrow pointed out that the federal government has transferred $245 million to the Province of New Brunswick over the past two years for the province to use on employment and training programs. He said another $103 million will be transferred in 2011-2012.

“The provincial government has flexibility to spend it how they wish,” said Sparrow.