The number of Albertans applying for employment insurance benefits rose almost 30 per cent in February, Statistics Canada reported Thursday.

EI claims, which indicate how many people could receive the benefits in the future, rose 29.4 per cent in the province from January. That compared with a national increase of 6.7 per cent.

Across Canada, the number of people actually receiving employment insurance benefits increased by two per cent, to 509,300 people in February. In Alberta, 36,000 people received employment insurance, an increase of 15.6 per cent from the previous month.

For context, 1.5 per cent of Alberta's workforce is claiming EI benefits. In Ontario, that number is 1.9 per cent and in B.C. 2 per cent.

It was the largest monthly increase in Alberta since 2009, and the fourth consecutive monthly increase for the province. Hardest hit were Albertans working in primary industry, processing, manufacturing and utilities; natural and applied sciences; and management, Statistics Canada said.

This came as no surprise to economists watching the job market in Alberta, where activity in the oilpatch is drying up due to low oil prices.

Between January and February, the unemployment rate in the province rose from 4.5 per cent to 5.3 per cent.

"We'll see continuing claims in Alberta for employment insurance benefits," said Janice Plumstead, senior economist with the Canada West Foundation. 

"We should see something again in March and April and, assuming that we don't see any more layoffs, that will probably level out in the next few months.

"But I don't think we're through it yet — not until we see the price of oil stabilize or start to increase."

Extended slowdown

The total number of EI recipients in Alberta was steeper than expected, said Pedro Antunes, deputy chief economist at the Conference Board of Canada.

"We are looking at a situation where Alberta is coming off a very big high. For the last four years, investment levels have been just phenomenal in the province. The province was generating over half of the employment in the country in the last two years," he said.

"Until we see oil prices doing a little bit better and profitably up among the oil producers, we are probably going to see a fairly extended slowdown. We are not expecting oil prices to recover very quickly, and we're really in a different situation now than anyone had planned for."