OTTAWA - Unequal access to Employment Insurance benefits across the
country is turning the economic crisis into a national unity problem,
the Liberals charged Friday.

The accusation came as B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell
complained that variable eligibility rules are "clearly discriminatory"
to western Canadians.


Campbell is suggesting a single national standard of
at least 420 hours of work to be eligible for EI-currently the lowest
eligibility requirement in areas with the highest unemployment.

It's very similar to a proposal by the federal Liberals for a national standard of 360 hours.

The idea set off alarm bells in Atlantic Canada,
where the unemployed could wind up finding it harder to qualify for EI
if the federal government were to accept the idea.

The chances of that seem remote, however.

Finance Minister Jim Flaherty continued Friday to
defend the status quo, in which a worker must have anywhere from 420 to
910 hours of employment, depending on the local jobless rate, to be
eligible to collect EI.

As unemployment increases in an area, the number of hours of work needed to qualify go down.

"The automatic stabilizers in the EI system work in
British Columbia just as they work in the province of Ontario,"
Flaherty said in Toronto.

"And, in fact, that's one of the reasons why we have
a more substantial debt and deficit this year in Canada ... because of
the increased employment insurance benefits, which are in the billions
of dollars."

Flaherty announced this week that the deficit for
2009-10 will swell to more than $50 billion - $16 billion higher than
forecast in January.

Liberal MP Bob Rae told the House of Commons that
B.C. is only the latest province to demand a single national
eligibility standard for EI, joining Ontario and Alberta.

The provinces' demands show "Employment Insurance has now become an issue of national unity," Rae said.

He added that the Conservative government's "rigid"
refusal to consider a national standard amounts to "downloading costs
onto the provinces" which must pay welfare for those who don't qualify
for EI.

Rae said the Liberals are willing to consider
alternatives to their 360-hour proposal, provided the change doesn't
put any regions at a disadvantage.

"Obviously, we're not talking about lowering the accessibility for people who are currently eligible."

However, Campbell isn't ruling out that possibility.

In an essay in a national Canadian newspaper,
Campbell suggested that if the 420-hour scheme isn't affordable
nationally, the federal government should set a higher standard that
applies equally in all provinces.

But moving to anything higher than 420 hours means
workers in some chronically depressed regions would have to work longer
hours to qualify for EI. And at least one Atlantic premier signalled
that would be unacceptable.

"Any changes to the EI system must not take away from what we have here in New Brunswick today," said Premier Shawn Graham.

"We're in the grips of the greatest economic crisis
that our province has faced in decades so any reforms that are being
proposed need to compliment the system but not take away from regions
of the country as we move forward in dealing with the economic

A spokesperson for Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty endorsed in principle Campbell's pitch for a single national standard.

"A person who loses their job in Ontario should be
treated the same as a person who loses their job anywhere else in
Canada," said Karman Wong, noting that an Ontario worker receives
$4,600 less in EI benefits than a worker in other provinces.

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