Atlantic Premier’s report slams changes to EI program

Moving west rather than taking a local job still the preferred option. And the region's labour shortage is only getting worse

CORNWALL, PEI, Jul 6, 2014/ Troy Media/ – There is little in a regional report on changes to the Employment Insurance program that falls into the “shocker” category.

PEI Premier Robert Ghiz made no secret of his government’s opposition to the changes, announced in May of 2013, that were designed to tighten up the rules on repeat users. The changes require claimants to accept a job within 100 kilometres of their home paying at least 70 per cent of their previous salary, eliminated a provision that allowed claims to be based on the best 14 weeks of earning power as well as a pilot program that saw those drawing benefits in areas of high unemployment like PEI to get five extra weeks of benefits.

His opposition was shared not only by opposition politicians in his own province but by his fellow premiers in the Atlantic region. Through the Council of Atlantic Premiers, they established something called the “Pan-Atlantic Study of the Impact of Recent Changes to Employment Insurance.” Each province appointed one member and the group travelled throughout PEI, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador hearing first-hand about the impact.

Their report, which runs over 100 pages, acknowledges a higher proportion of Atlantic Canadians draw benefits compared to most Canadians (something they put down to the seasonal nature of the economy) but says Ottawa has to understand the “unique economic environment in the Atlantic Provinces and the role of the Employment Insurance program in workforce and income stability, particularly in seasonal industries.”

The report points out EI benefit payments comprised 4.3 per cent of total income in the Atlantic region in 2010 – the national average is 1.8 per cent. However, even within provinces, there are significant differences. Just like other parts of the country, there are more claimants in rural areas than in cities.

There can be no debate the region is more dependent on these benefits than the rest of the country. Almost half (47.8 per cent) who are drawing benefits had previous claims – more than double the national average of 22.6 per cent. In some rural areas, the report estimates close to 60 per cent are repeat users.

When the changes were introduced, federal officials made much of the fact fish processing plants in rural areas of the Atlantic Provinces were forced to bring in temporary foreign workers because they were unable to hire locally, in spite of the fact many rural areas have double digit employment.

The thinking of many federal officials seemed to be the jobs were going unfulfilled because people could make more money drawing Employment Insurance benefits than working in a fish plant. Tighter rules, they surmised, would rectify the problem.

In PEI, at least, that hasn’t happened. During the spring lobster season, many plants were forced to impose quotas on how much product they purchased from fishermen because they couldn’t find enough workers. That, compounded with a hiring freeze imposed on temporary foreign workers, meant the industry recruited heavily in high schools in early June and they eventually found enough.

Dennis King is pretty frustrated that the foreign worker program will no longer be an option next year. New rules introduced in June basically put a moratorium on applications in areas of the country with an unemployment rate of over 6 per cent. King is the executive director of an industry group that represents seafood processors in the province. He has a simple message for Ottawa bureaucrats – if they think there is a big pool of available workers, come to the Island and find them.

The changes to Employment Insurance have resulted in fewer Islanders drawing benefits. However, it is now becoming conventional wisdom that this is the result of people relocating to the west rather than a better job climate locally.

However, the report suggests that reality could improve if there was a national employment strategy. The advisory panel noted “The seasonality of the economy is a reality however there exists a strong opportunity to properly support our seasonal economies and better utilize our workforce more effectively. By matching training and educational needs with the needs of Western Canada, this can be a win-win for both regions. More collective thought and energy should be put towards matching the needs of the two areas so that workers can stay in their home provinces while meeting many of the requirements of the expansion and growth in Western Canada.”

An excellent suggestion. There is no reason why the Atlantic region should continue to bleed people while the west cries for workers.

A life-long resident of Prince Edward Island, Troy Media Syndicated Columnist Andy Walker has been a writer and commentator for over 30 years.

Read more Eye on PEI

Follow Eye on PEI via RSS

Read more Eye on Canada

Purchase this PREMIUM content.
Unlimited Access
member? Have an account with us? Login to open in Word.
Pay as you go member? Prices start at $14. Login or register

Troy Media Marketplace © 2014 – All Rights Reserved

One year contract. Weekly

You must be logged in to post a comment Login