OTTAWA - A provincial proposal to impose more uniform qualifying standards for employment insurance across the country could actually wind up creating more losers than winners, a federal analysis concludes.
According to a summary of the analysis, obtained by The Canadian Press, 45 per cent of Canadians would get fewer benefits if the current 58 EI regions were compressed into just three, as proposed by western premiers.
Thirty-five per cent would get more and 20 per cent would see no difference.
Currently, there are 58 different thresholds for qualifying for EI, depending on local unemployment rates. Those in regions with the highest unemployment require as little as 420 hours of work to qualify while those in low unemployment areas require as much as 700 hours.
The western premiers are proposing that the 58 thresholds be reduced to just three, for urban, rural and remote areas. They will try Thursday at the annual premiers' conference to persuade their counterparts from other provinces to accept the idea.
The premiers' discussion on the issue is scheduled for roughly the same time that a federal bipartisan working group is to meet for the second time to try to find common ground on EI reforms. Liberals hope the premiers' will put pressure on the Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservatives to get serious about streamlining the EI system.
"It's a priority for (premiers) and they're actually working on it," said Montreal MP Marlene Jennings, a Liberal member of the working group.
"It's a priority for us. We're working on it. We've come to the table with a proposal. The Conservatives have not. They've spent their time taking potshots at our proposal without coming out with their own proposals."
Tories and Liberals have been squabbling over EI for the past two weeks, increasing the chances that they'll reach an impasse that may trigger an election this fall.
Federal officials are scheduled to provide the working group Thursday with an analysis of the Liberals' proposal to create a single national standard of 360 hours of work to qualify for EI benefits.
They've evidently been analyzing the western premiers' proposal as well, even though it hasn't been fleshed out yet and it's unclear if other premiers will buy into it.
The proposal doesn't specify qualifying standards that would apply in each of the three areas, leaving the details to be worked out later if all premiers accept the idea in principle.
In the absence of such details, federal officials used some general assumptions to analyze the impact. They applied an eligibility threshold of 420 hours for remote areas, a bit less than 700 hours for urban areas and somewhere in between for rural areas.
However, premiers might propose more lenient qualifying standards, assuming they can reach agreement at all on streamlining the EI system.
Consensus was not apparent Wednesday as premiers gathered in Regina for their annual meeting.
Ontario's Dalton McGuinty said he'd like to see a single national eligibility standard of 420 hours, the current minimum. And he said it should be a temporary measure only, until the recession-ravaged economy recovers and begins creating jobs again.
"I prefer that we have one national standard. It doesn't have to last forever," said McGuinty.
"Maybe that's not a bad place for us to go, just pending the recession itself."
Manitoba's Gary Doer frankly admitted he's "not sure" other premiers will buy into the three-category proposal advanced by their western colleagues.
He added that EI isn't a big issue in his province, where unemployment remains relatively low. And he warned that premiers should be realistic about the cost to the federal treasury of easing access to EI.
"We shouldn't be so naive as premiers that we just agree with ourselves and say to the feds that it's all up to you because at the end of the day we'll all pay for it," said Doer.
With files from Jennifer Graham in Regina