Churchill NDP MP Niki Ashton and a northern Saskatchewan NDP MLA announced a campaign to petition the government to reconsider proposed changes to the employment insurance program on July 6.
"Our petition is focused on asking the government to reverse its EI changes and our goal is to spread this petition out throughout the North throughout the summer months and have as many people, not just seasonal workers, not just the communities that depend largely on seasonal work but all northerners to have a say in saying that these changes do not work for us and we want the federal government to listen to reverse its changes and to be able to look at how we can create greater economic opportunities in our North," said Ashton, who expressed her view that changes to EI would have a disproportionate impact on seasonal workers and northern communities when they were announced by Conservative MP Diane Finley, the minister of human resources and skills development, as part of the Conservative government's omnibus budget bill in May.
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.
Doyle Vermette, the Saskatchewan NDP MLA for Cumberland, called the proposed changes an "injustice" to workers in the northern part of his province.
"They have a right to special consideration and the government needs to hear those considerations," said Vermette. "They're a part of our economy. They help the economy within their communities and this will have a large impact not only on our local economy but on our provincial economy too when you look at who will cover the cost if they can't get EI and they don't qualify anymore."
Ashton pointed out that seasonal work has a bigger role in the North.
"For many of our communities these are the only jobs that exist in any real numbers," she said. "You're playing with the lives of people, you're playing with the lives of communities when you take away a social safety net that all Canadians pay into and depend on in a certain way."
Responding to Ashton in May, Conservative MP Rob Clarke (Desnethé-Missinippi-Churchill River, Sask.) wrote 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.
The online version of the NDP petition can be found at www.nikiashton.ndp.ca.