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Liberals move to add weeks to EI, COVID-19 benefits for workers and parents

OTTAWA — The Trudeau Liberals sought Friday to get ahead of a looming benefits panic, announcing plans to add extra weeks of income support for unemployed workers and parents at home with children because of the pandemic.

OTTAWA — The Trudeau Liberals sought Friday to get ahead of a looming benefits panic, announcing plans to add extra weeks of income support for unemployed workers and parents at home with children because of the pandemic.

The government plans to add 12 weeks of eligibility to the $500-a-week Canada Recovery Benefit and the Canada Recovery Caregiving Benefit, raising the maximum number of weeks available to 38 from 26.

The federal sickness benefit will be expanded to four weeks from two so workers can stay home if they're feeling ill or have to isolate because of COVID-19.

Employment insurance eligibility is also promised to be stretched to allow people to receive up to 50 weeks of benefits, rather than 26, for any claims filed since late September.

Hassan Yussuff, president of the Canadian Labour Congress, said the extra weeks should be a major relief for those who worried about losing support at the end of next month. But he suggested the extension may not be enough to bridge to better times. 

Labour groups have asked the Liberals to extend benefits until the end of the year, which is how long they believe it might take before the workers in hardest-hit industries get back on the job. 

"The one thing that nobody has been able to predict is when are we going to get to the other side," Yussuff said.

"As the government prepares for the budget, they may yet have to make a further announcement to figure out how we're going to support people until the job numbers are starting to return to the level they were prior to the pandemic."

Canada's labour market reversed months of gains in December and January, as lockdowns sent employment rates back to where they were in August, leaving the country short 858,300 jobs of pre-pandemic levels.

The government had planned to review eligibility for the recovery benefits at the start of January and the jobs numbers helped inform the decision to add more weeks, said Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough. 

The extra weeks for the recovery benefits will provide income support to June for those who have needed it since their inception, roughly the same time that business support like the wage subsidy is also to expire.

Federal officials will see what needs to come next for workers and businesses depending on how things look, Qualtrough said in an interview.

"We just are constantly figuring out the balance between all these programs, to minimize any kind of negative impact, but also to maximize labour-force attachment," she said, "and preparations that are underway to kick things into gear when the country is vaccinated."

The government's most recent figures show it has provided over $11.6 billion through the three recovery benefits launched in the fall to replace the Canada Emergency Recovery Benefit. 

A further $13.5 billion has been spent on regular EI benefits, with about two million people currently receiving the income support. That doesn't include special benefits like parental leave.

The government estimates the cost to extend the benefits at $6.7 billion, and a further $5.4 billion for EI.

Extending the recovery benefits can happen through regulation, which is simpler than the law that needs to be passed to extend EI eligibility. 

And once changes are made, provincial governments would have to update worker protection rules to accommodate the extra weeks of sickness and caregiving leave.

Conservative workforce critic Raquel Dancho said in a statement that her party supported getting help to unemployed workers, and put the onus on the government to craft a plan to create jobs across every sector of the economy.

"The Liberals need to present a budget, their first in two years, that will get Canadians back to work and bring our economy back to life," the statement said.

NDP employment critic Daniel Blaikie welcomed the additional weeks, but noted it doesn't solve concerns that the sick leave can't be taken one or two days at a time.

"It's a good start, but there is a lot that is still not working well with these programs," he said in an interview. "It's going to take more than an announcement of simply extending benefits in order to get to the heart of some of these things."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 19, 2021.

Jordan Press, The Canadian Press