M. Bernard Valcourt, MP for Madawaska-Restigouche, is very vocal in his support of the cuts to the Employment Insurance program. He is adamant that these major changes will be good for workers and will help them, their family or the community they live in. I, like thousands of citizens in this province, beg to disagree.
First, M. Valcourt does not mention that his government brought the changes by incorporating them in an Omnibus Bill which included hundreds of pages. These changes were brought without consultation with employers and workers who are funding the program, and certainly not with communities. M. Valcourt and other MPs did not have the political courage to meet workers, employers and communities to explain these changes.
M. Valcourt is saying that he wants to put Canadians back to work. His solution: institute three categories of unemployed workers based on the length of time they received EI in the last five years. He wants workers to accept jobs at up to 30% of their former salary, accept essentially any kind of job and be forced to travel at least one hour or 100km from their residence. He wants them to search for jobs each day and keep a log book with details of their efforts for six years.
M. Valcourt is not talking about the reality of employment in his province where, between September 2011 and September 2012, there were an average 40,100 claimants per month and only 4,700 jobs available for the same period. What jobs do you want claimants to accept if they are so scarce? The cat comes out of the bag when we read in the document entitled, “Regulation amending the Regulation on Employment Insurance”, that the department predicts that an estimated 8,000 claimants are likely to see their EI benefits terminated in 2012-2013 (saving $12.5 million) and three times as much in 2013-2014 and the following years saving $33 million each year.
Mr. Valcourt is all over the media stating that workers will not be forced to take a job that is paying less than what they receive from EI. He also states that workers will be able to refuse a job if they have valid reasons. First, workers will have to accept jobs at up to 30% less pay. Second, the average weekly EI benefits in NB is around $359, so technically, they need to accept a job paying less than the minimum wage. Finally, as we have seen recently in PEI, a claimant was cuts off even if she had an acceptable reason (lack of transportation) for refusing a job.
There are four other major changes that M. Valcourt is not mentioning that will have a direct impact on workers.
The first one is the abolition of the Pilot Project which existed since 2004 and was providing five additional weeks of EI in 21 high unemployment regions in Canada, two of these regions are Restigouche-Albert and Madawaska-Charlotte, both in M. Valcourt’s riding. The pilot project prevented workers from being without income each spring, a situation which is commonly called the “black hole.” It is clear that the disappearance of this pilot project will have a dramatic impact in these regions and the provincial government will be the one left to pick up the pieces.
The second change will be the abolition, on April 6, 2013, of the pilot project of the best 14 weeks of earnings. This pilot project, again in 21 high unemployment regions, allowed workers to use their best 14 weeks of earnings out of the last 52-week period for the calculation of their benefits. The project excluded from the calculation the “small weeks” income which would have normally reduced the amount of their benefits. With this pilot project, even if the regional unemployment rate went down below 13%, the divisor still remained at 14. The 2011 EI Monitoring and Assessment Report of Canadian Employment Insurance Commission stated that: with this pilot project claimants received a weekly benefit rate that was, on average, $47 higher than it would have been had the pilot project not been in place.
The third change is a new Working While on Claim Pilot Project to calculate allowable earnings while been unemployed. Essentially, if workers choose the new way of calculation, they will not be penalized. If they choose the old way, they will not have the choice to report their bi-weekly income by phone or computer, as is the case with other claimants. They will have to do it through mail and the calculation of their benefits will be done manually, which will cause unnecessary delays in the receipt of their benefits. This method is simply punitive. We cannot believe that in our highly computerized world, the Department cannot have the proper software to do the necessary calculation, whether deduction are 40% or 50% of earnings.
Finally, the EI Board of Referees which will be abolished and replaced by a Social Security Tribunal. We are replacing a system in which workers and employers had a representative on the Board, a non-bureaucratic and decentralized system by a Tribunal with full-time staff paid around $100,000, highlight bureaucratic and centralized. It will be almost impossible to have face-to-face hearings as most appeals will be heard by telephone or videoconference. There will be delays in decisions and negative impact on unemployed workers.
All of these changes will not help workers, especially those living in areas of high unemployment and in areas where part of the economy is seasonal. These cuts will have major impacts on unemployed workers’ revenue, the economy of the region they live in and on our province.