03/22/2016 05:23 EDT | Updated 03/23/2017 05:12 EDT

Employment Insurance Benefits Sweetened For Oil Regions In Liberal Budget

Long-tenured workers in hardest-hit regions will get up to 70 weeks.

Alberta Premier Rachel Notley says the employment insurance changes in the federal budget are a "good start" for her hard-hit province.

"This will help struggling Alberta families and unemployed workers right away," Notley told reporters in Calgary Tuesday.

"The EI program is becoming more responsive to rapid shifts in the labour market."

But she noted the changes are not permanent.

"It's a program that goes right now for a short period of time, so we'll have to see what the state of play is in Alberta with respect to jobs and employment loss and the jobless rate over the course of the next 12 months."

Rachel Notley says changes to EI in the latest federal budget are a "good start." (Photo: Jason Franson/CP)

The federal budget is changing the rules that govern employment insurance to help resource-dependent provinces.

The 12 regions getting the EI changes are: Whitehorse, Nunavut, northern British Columbia, northern Manitoba, northern Ontario, Newfoundland and Labrador, northern Alberta, southern Alberta, northern Saskatchewan, Calgary, Saskatoon, and Sudbury, Ont.

Workers in those areas who are likely at or near the end of their unemployment benefits, will get a short-term boost.

Finance Minister Bill Morneau's budget adds five weeks to the regular 45 weeks of EI benefits those workers receive, effective in July but retroactive to January 2015.

That measure will cost the treasury $405 million this year and $177 million next year.

Long-tenured workers in the 12 regions identified in the budget as suffering the sharpest jumps in joblessness will be eligible for an extra 20 weeks of benefits, to a maximum of 70 weeks.

That change, too, will be effective in July but retroactive to January of last year.

"In the short-term, the collapse of the price of oil and other commodities has strained families and communities in many provinces," Morneau said in his budget speech.

"The EI program is becoming more responsive to rapid shifts in the labour market."

The budget also cut the two-week waiting period for benefits to one week, starting next year, added $19 million to speed up processing of benefit applications and $73 million over two years to hire more people at overwhelmed call centres.

Notley said rough estimates from her staff suggest that two-thirds of Canadians affected by the EI changes work in Alberta.

She said rough estimates also put the benefit to her province at $380 million.

The changes will encompass 12 regions where the unemployment rate increased by two percentage points or more for a sustained period over the last 12 months, compared to the lowest point between 2014 and early 2015.

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However, Notley and Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall took issue with who was excluded. In Alberta, all workers except for those in Edmonton are eligible for the program. In Saskatchewan, only the workers in Saskatoon and northern Saskatchewan will benefit.

Wall said workers in the oil hub of Lloydminster will be included, but noted, "The rest of our oilpatch is in the southeast and the southwest and it's excluded from any of these, even the basic extension of EI benefits.

"That's a first concern that we'll want to raise, that they've missed a big part of Saskatchewan's oilpatch in this particular initiative."

Notley said she suspects the fact her government has not responded to the economic downturn by slashing public sector jobs has shielded Edmonton in the short term.

Both Notley and Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson they will push to have Edmonton included if job numbers in the city worsen.

With files from Jennifer Graham in Regina and John Ward in Ottawa

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