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Mary Shortall is anxious — the president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Labour says people left jobless by the COVID-19 pandemic a year ago will soon run out of employment insurance (EI) benefits.
Although the federal government indicated in a February news release it would amend the EI regulations to increase the benefit period to 50 weeks, that promise hinges on the adoption of Bill C-24.
That bill has not yet moved past first reading in the House of Commons.
In a February news release, Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough outlined some of the changes proposed for the Canada Recovery Benefit (CRB), the Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit (CRSB), the Canada Recovery Caregiving Benefit (CRCB) and employment insurance (EI) regular benefits.
If Bill C-24 is adopted, it would increase the number of weeks available under the CRB and CRCB by 12 weeks, extending the maximum duration from 26 weeks to 38 weeks, and increase the duration of the CRSB from two to four weeks.
The amendments would also increase the number of weeks of EI regular benefits available by up to 24 weeks, to a maximum of 50 weeks, for claims made between Sept. 27, 2020 and Sept. 25, 2021.
The amendments do not apply to fishing benefits.
Shortall noted many people who lost their jobs last March when the pandemic arrived in Canada will see their EI claims expire in March or April.
Many of them worked in industries that have not recovered from the impacts of pandemic. The tourism, travel, food service and retail sectors have been severely affected by public health lockdowns.
“Bill 24 is really needing to happen soon because those benefits are going to run out soon for millions of workers,” said Shortall.
Shortall is worried, though, because she’s heard that Opposition parties want to use the debate on Bill C-24 as an opportunity to push full reform of the EI program and make major changes.
She said while EI reform is important, adding that to the discussion now would slow progress of the bill and result in people losing EI benefits before changes are enacted.
“There’s 844,000 workers whose CRB will run out at the end of March. There’s another 129,000 whose caregiving benefits will run out and there’s two million EI recipients who, if they qualified for benefits with less than 490 hours, their benefits are going to run out.”
It’s “important and urgent” to pass Bill C-24, she said, to allow those people to collect extra weeks of EI while the economy is still recovering.
As for broad EI reform, Shortall said that is a discussion that still needs to happen.
She said one of the things the pandemic has made clear is that the system to help the unemployed needs to change.
“The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has said the lessons Canada has learned from the pandemic is an opportunity to review the program … as an economic stabilizer and use some of the lessons from that to make permanent changes.”
For now, though, Shortall says it’s time to get Bill C-24 to second reading and then to committee for review.
Once those steps are completed the bill will come back to the House of Commons for a final vote, and then to the Senate for royal assent to make it law.
Those steps can take time, she noted, but Parliament also proved in 2020 that it can make things happen quickly in urgent situations.
The House of Commons is currently on a week-long break.
Up to Friday, Bill C-24 had not appeared on the order paper for second reading.
In response to questions from SaltWire Network, the Department of Human Resources Development Canada said, “The government plans to move forward as quickly as possible with the necessary legislative changes so that there is a seamless extension of the benefits for Canadian workers hardest hit by COVID-19. Specific dates will be determined by Parliament.”
The department said that as of Feb. 14, there were just over two million active EI regular benefit claimants.