The NDP would freeze employment insurance premiums for the next four years and boost benefits, Tom Mulcair announced Tuesday as part of a plan his critics warned would kill jobs and hurt young people looking for work.
The proposal draws a clear line differentiating the New Democrats from their rivals on the program.
Mulcair told a gathering that the NDP, if elected on Oct. 19, would spend more on training programs and benefits for young people, so-called precarious workers and new parents.
Campaigning in the riding of Moncton-Riverview-Dieppe, a Conservative-held riding with a high youth unemployment rate, Mulcair said the government should help young job-seekers struggling to find work and invest in programs designed to give them the skills they need to do that.
New Brunswick has seen improvements recently in its employment picture after the province registered the highest youth unemployment rate in the country last year, hovering at nearly 20 per cent.
But businesses in New Brunswick and elsewhere would consider an EI premium freeze as a tax hike, since they were expecting rates to be lower next year, said Canadian Federation of Independent Business president Dan Kelly.
The Conservatives have vowed to cut EI premiums by 2017 from the current $1.88 for every $100 earned to $1.49. When the Liberals countered with a promise to reduce premiums to $1.65 per $100, the Tories characterized that as a tax hike — a criticism Mulcair rejected for his own pledge.
"We're not raising the rates of EI," Mulcair said. "We're maintaining them so that we can avoid the cuts, the cuts that the Conservatives have brought in."
Mulcair also committed to remove the EI fund from general revenues, which would mean the federal government could no longer dip into EI surpluses to help balance its books.
NDP officials acknowledge that would require legislative change.
"That's the goal," said party spokesman Karl Belanger.
Mulcair said the government should no longer be able to treat the EI fund as a piggy bank to be raided when extra cash is needed. Previous Liberal governments under former prime ministers Jean Chretien and Paul Martin took billion-dollar surpluses from the EI account to cut taxes, pay for non-EI programs and balance budgets.
Despite having previously criticized the Liberals for diverting EI funds, the Conservatives also used a $2.7-billion EI surplus to help balance the government's last budget.
Mulcair said the NDP would set up an independent board of directors to ensure the EI fund is out of reach of government.
"Liberals and Conservatives raided the EI fund to the tune of $50 billion and we'll make sure that fund is protected," he said.
Conservative Leader Stephen Harper announced in Winnipeg that a 20 per cent reduction in EI premiums would help to create up to 1.3 million net new jobs by 2020 by encouraging small businesses to expand and hire new employees.
But Mulcair said premiums need to be frozen at the current rate to extend EI eligibility to more people, improve benefits for new parents and compassionate care benefits for those who stop working to care for a sick family member.
A New Democrat government, he said, would also extend leave for the second parent of a newborn child by five weeks.
Increasingly restricted eligibility requirements for EI benefits imposed by Liberal and Conservative governments have resulted in a drop in the proportion of the unemployed who qualify for EI benefits.
Part of the NDP proposal would see some of those restrictions lifted so more people would qualify.
Under the plan, EI plan participants who lose their jobs through no fault of their own, no matter where they live in Canada, would be eligible for benefits after working at least 360 hours in the previous 52-week period.
Canadians working "uneven" hours would also qualify based on their best 12 weeks of pay, a measure the New Democrats estimate would cost $460 million.
Another $430 million dollars would be used to provide an extra five weeks of benefits to unemployed workers in regions where jobs are hard to find.
The NDP also proposed to remove what it calls "punitive and unfair" definitions for "suitable employment" and "reasonable job search" that were imposed by the Harper Conservatives, which effectively forced the jobless to accept any job at 70 per cent of their previous salary, under threat of losing benefits.