Churchill NDP MP Niki Ashton says changes to Canada's Employment Insurance (EI) program will have a greater effect on communities and seasonal workers in her Northern Manitoba riding and in Canada's North as a whole.
"Seasonal industries, such as fishing, trapping and forest firefighting provide critical employment for Northerners and Northern First Nation and Métis communities," Ashton said in a May 25 press release. "[Stephen] Harper's government is threatening to take these livelihoods away."
The previous day, Conservative MP Diane Finley, the minister of human resources and skills development, announced changes to the EI program that will see frequent EI claimants required to expand their job search and the definition of what is suitable employment the longer they are claiming EI benefits.
"It is important that we make changes now to ensure the EI program is working most effectively for Canada and Canadians," said Finley in a press release.
With the changes, long-tenured workers, who have paid into the EI system for seven of the past 10 years and collected benefits for 35 weeks or less over the past five years, would be required to expand their job search to accept similar jobs that pay 80 per cent or more of their previous hourly wages after 18 weeks of receiving benefits. Frequent claimants – those who have had three or more claims for a total of 60 or more weeks in the past five years – would be required to accept wages starting at 80 per cent of their previous hourly wage in the first six weeks of their claim, a threshold that would drop to 70 per cent after seven weeks of receiving benefits. Occasional claimants could limit their search to jobs with wages equivalent to 90 per cent of their previous hourly wage for the first six weeks of receiving benefits. After that, they would be required to expand their search to jobs paying 80 per cent of their previous hourly rate. After 18 weeks, they would have to expand their search to include jobs paying 70 per cent of the previous wage.
Ashton said this would mean fewer people than ever would qualify for EI and be forced to work lower wage jobs or apply for assistance from provincial welfare programs. In the North, communities that rely on fishing for seasonal employment would be adversely affected, she said.
"Northern Manitobans have made great efforts to diversify our economy," said Ashton. "These changes turn the clock back and will impoverish communities that already struggle. It's simply appalling to sneak these changes through in a budget bill."
Conservative MP Rob Clarke (Desnethé-Missinippi-Churchill River, Sask.) responded to Ashton's claims in a letter to the Flin Flon Reminder, stating that the Conservative government recognizes that special provisions would need to be made in areas where much of the economy is based on seasonal industries. He also pointed out that the changes included provisions to allow EI claimants to keep a greater portion of any money they earn while collecting benefits. As of Aug. 5 of this year, the Working While on Claim pilot project will cut the current EI clawback rate to 50 per cent of all earnings while claiming benefits. Previously, a portion of earnings were exempt from being clawed back and any earnings beyond this were clawed back dollar for dollar, which the government says encouraged people to turn down jobs with wages that would exceed that clawback exemption amount.
EI divides the country into 58 economic regions and those with high local unemployment offer more generous benefits than those with better employment prospects. Northern Manitoba, which has an unemployment rate of 28.6 per cent, is one of the regions with the highest possible benefits, where claimants can receive anywhere from 37 to 45 weeks of benefits after working a minimum of 420 insurable hours.
Ashton also takes issue with changes that will be made to what qualifies as "suitable employment" for EI claimants. Finley, however, says the Employment Insurance Act didn't previously define what was suitable and that the government plans to base the definition on six criteria: personal circumstances, working conditions, hours of work, commuting time, type of work and the hourly wage. The latter two would vary over the duration of the claim and based on the claimant's history of receiving EI benefits.