The number of Albertans collecting employment insurance has skyrocketed by 91 per cent since the start of 2015, Statistics Canada says.

The federal agency says 63,800 Albertans were receiving EI cheques in January — a two per cent increase from December's figures and up 91 per cent from the 33,400 receiving benefits a year earlier.Alberta's current jobless rate of 7.4 per cent is at its highest level in 21 years as the province lost tens of thousands of jobs in the beleaguered resource sector as oil prices plunged.

The figures reflect that laid-off oilpatch workers are seeing their severance packages run out and the downturn's effect is beginning to hit other job sectors, says Janice Plumstead, senior economist at the Canada West Foundation. 

"And so what we're seeing is a slowdown, a general slowdown in the whole Alberta economy and it's starting to affect other parts of it," she said.

EI ran out

Calgary saw a month-to-month increase of 1.7 per cent in the number of EI recipients, while the numbers in Edmonton rose by 2.4 per cent.

Accountant Karen Muma, who lost her job in the oil and gas sector, says her EI ran out last week, and it has been difficult to find out if she will qualify for an extension.

"I've called a few times, but the recording on the EI phone say either they are not taking calls or the volume is high," she said. 

While the national EI totals remained relatively unchanged overall from the previous month — totalling 543,100 — seven provinces did report increases in the numbers of EI beneficiaries.

New Brunswick saw a 4.2 per cent increase, Newfoundland and Labrador's figure was up 3.2 per cent, Saskatchewan recorded a 2.4 per cent increase and Alberta's totals went up 2 per cent.

On a year-over-year basis, the huge increase in the number of Albertans receiving EI assistance skewed the national picture. 

Service companies

"In the 12 months to January, the total number of EI beneficiaries increased by 35,900 or 7.1 per cent, largely as a result of increases in Alberta," Statistics Canada said in a release. 

In view of these figures, the federal government might be forced to revisit its decision to exclude Edmonton from the changes to eligibility for EI benefits that were announced in Tuesday's budget, according to Plumstead.

"There's a lot of oil and gas supply service companies ... in that region, so they may not have been affected in the first round of effects from the decline in oil prices, but certainly their businesses have been affected and so that has to affect the number of people who they're able to employ, and we could see that number, that unemployment number rise in Edmonton over the next 12 months," she said.

In January, Quebec saw a two per cent month-to-month decline in the number of EI beneficiaries, down to 143,600.

British Columbia's EI figures in January were down 1.2 per cent from December, and in Ontario there was little change except in a few areas of the province. The numbers of EI recipients dropped 7.7 per cent in Thunder Bay and 7.6 per cent in Windsor. However, there was a 3.6 per cent increase in EI recipients in Oshawa and a 2.3 per cent jump in Sudbury.