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Northern B.C. residents to benefit from Liberal EI extension

Eligible workers can now collect up to 70 weeks of benefits
EI claims in Fort St. John have doubled in the span of a year, according to Statistics Canada data.

Northern B.C. residents will be eligible for additional employment insurance (EI)  benefits rolled out in the Liberal government's first budget Tuesday. 

The government is extending benefits to 12 economic regions struggling with unemployment after a collapse in oil and gas prices. 

The Liberals plan to extend regular EI benefits by five weeks for eligible claimants, Finance Minister Bill Morneau told the House of Commons Tuesday, and will provide up to 20 additional weeks of regular benefits for "long-tenured" workers who have lost their jobs.

Eligible workers can now claim benefits for up to 70 weeks.

While he welcomed some aspects of the budget, Prince George-Peace River-Northern Rockies MP Bob Zimmer criticized the EI provisions. 

"Instead of increasing access to EI, the government should be focused on increasing access to good, stable jobs in Canada," he said in a release. 

The measures will take effect in July. Among the 12 regions covered under the plan are Northern B.C., Alberta, Whitehorse, Yukon, Northern Sakatchewan, Northern Manitoba, and Newfoundland and Labrador. 

According to the budget, the 12 regions are suffering from "sharp and sustained unemployment shocks" related to declines in the oil and gas sector. Unemployment in these regions has grow by at least two percentage points between March 2015 and Feb. 2016 "without showing significant signs of recovery."  

The plan will cost government $405 million in 2016-17, before tapering off to $177 million in the next fiscal year. 

Northeast B.C. has been particularly hard hit by the collapse in oil prices, with unemployment jumping from below three per cent to 9.2 per cent in the span of a year. According to the most recent Statistics Canada data, 590 Fort St. John residents are on EI, with another 260 people in Dawson Creek collecting benefits. The benefit does not cover self-employed oilfield workers, meaning those figures likely underestimate the extent of unemployment in the region.  

The government is giving extra time to "long-tenured" workers to allow them to seek retraining. 

"This measure will ensure that long-tenured workers, who may have spent years working in one industry or for one employer, have the financial support they need while they search for work, possibly in an entirely different industry," the budget reads. 

Benefits will be available retroactively for all eligible claims as of Jan. 4, 2015. 

To pay for its ambitious spending plan, the government plans to run deficits of around $29 billion for at least two years, with no surpluses in the forecast before the next election. 

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