Millions of Canadian workers pay employment insurance premiums their entire working lives giving little thought to what would happen if they lost their jobs tomorrow.

But as the global economic crisis deepens, tens of thousands facing layoff are learning the cruel truth.

Cuts in the early 1990s mean barely half of the country’s unemployed today — and fewer than a quarter in Toronto — are eligible for benefits. Those lucky enough to qualify often get far less than poverty-level incomes. And for almost everyone scrambling to find work as the economy crumbles, benefits run out too soon.

As Stephen Harper’s Conservatives put the final touches on tomorrow’s budget, labour and business leaders alike are calling on Ottawa to mend Canada’s tattered employment insurance program — and put money in the hands of those who need it most and are most likely to spend it now.

The United States Congress has already passed two federal extensions to state employment benefits, and a new bill could see many American workers laid off in the beginning of 2008 collect benefits for up to two years. Most Canadian observers believe Ottawa is also ready to act.

For about 2,400 auto-parts workers who lost their jobs when Vaughan’s Progressive Moulded Products plant went bankrupt last July, the fix cannot come soon enough.

• Balvir Kaur Singh worked full time at the factory for 17 years before dropping to part time last year after a workplace injury. As a result of changes to EI in the 1990s that boosted the number of hours a person has to work before qualifying for benefits, Singh initially didn’t receive a cent. However, she was later awarded 17 weeks of EI sickness benefits.

“I am trying. Sometimes I cry. It’s too hard,” she says quietly in halting English.

• Single mom Duc Phung Diep is drowning in debt because EI is paying her just $325 a week — or 55 per cent of her previous income. Laid-off workers during the last recession were eligible to receive 60 per cent of their earnings.

“How do we care for our children?” she asks. She came to Canada from a refugee camp in Vietnam in 1996 with her 4-year-old son.

• Lincoln Meikle’s EI ran out Jan. 6 after just 38 weeks. Like most of his co-workers, he is still jobless and wondering how he will survive with no income. During the early 1990s, he could have received 50 weeks of employment insurance and then turned to a relatively generous welfare system to support him.

Economists, academics and unions want Ottawa to scrap EI entrance requirements based on regional unemployment rates and allow workers everywhere to qualify if they have worked 360 hours in the previous year.

This would include new entrants and those on special benefits, such as maternity or sick leave.

Workers currently need between 420 and 700 hours depending on regional unemployment rates before they qualify. New workers or those returning to the workforce after a two-year absence need between 840 and 910 hours and those seeking maternity or sick benefits need 600 hours.

Before 1996, workers only needed the equivalent of between 180 to 300 hours to qualify. For new entrants, it was just 300 hours.

Business and labour groups are calling on Ottawa to boost EI benefits — frozen for a decade after the cuts — to at least 60 per cent of earnings based on the best 12 weeks of pay in the previous 26 weeks.

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