After nearly one year of waiting, I was, like thousands of households, very happy to receive a personal letter from our Federal Government explaining changes to the Employment Insurance Program.
I told myself that after all that time, I would finally get real facts and data on why these changes were necessary. After reading the unsigned double-side page (Page 1, Page 2) which looks more like a bland photocopy (no colour for us, just black and white), I was really disappointed with the content. The letter pretends to provide the facts about the changes. The front side has the same information than the back side, but in bullet form this time. What a very interesting new concept of public communication!
The first bullet point tells us that the changes made are only new definitions of terms. I am sorry but creating three distinct categories of unemployed workers (long-tenure, frequent and occasional), where there were none before, and attaching different criteria for each one is quite a drastic change and not simply a new definition of terms.
The second bullet point says that we will not be worse off financially and personal circumstances will be taken into account. I would like to understand how, by having to accept 30% less revenue, I am going to be better off? As for taking personal circumstances into account, how can it be so when Service Canada’s own document states that claimants who have not made arrangements to free themselves of family obligations or other personal responsibilities to allow them to seek and accept all available hours of work may not be able to prove that they are available for work.
The third bullet point goes on to say that if one is not satisfied when he or she has been cut off, that person has the right to appeal. Great! But wait…! The 65 year-old EI Board of Referees has just been disbanded and replaced by a Tribunal. Great name, heh! The former non-bureaucratic system, based on part-time members from labour and employers (who are by the way funding the program), has been replaced by full-time government nominees paid between $90,800 and $107,900 a year. The decisions formerly taken by a three-member board will now be taken by one member only. The five New Brunswick regional boards will disappear. It will now be also almost impossible to defend your case in person.
The fourth bullet point specifies that EI will continue to be there, as always, as long as people make reasonable efforts to get a job. This is supposed to be reassuring. Reasonable efforts actually mean “accepting any kind of job, at all kinds of working hours, ensuring arrangements for family obligations such as childcare and eldercare are possible, taking care of travel accommodations, etc.” These efforts are demanded in order to be able to accept any work that is available.
The fifth bullet point states that nobody will be forced to move to find a job. Of course not, nobody will have to move! But, if you are forced to accept a job situated at a long distance from your family, perhaps you will be forced to move to keep your family together.
Finally, the sixth bullet point reassures Canadians that Service Canada is there for them. Nice to know!
There are four issues which the letter from Service Canada does not mention.
First, the letter is silent about the modifications made to the “Best 14 Weeks Pilot Project,” which will have a negative financial impact on claimants living in the 25 regions in Canada.
Secondly, the abolition of the “Extended Five Weeks of Benefits Pilot Project” for 21 regions is not mentioned. This program was preventing the Spring Black Hole–when seasonal agricultural, fishing and tourism sectors wind down and workers are forced to turn to EI.
Thirdly, the letter does not address the impact that these so-called “minor changes” will have on many unemployed workers, especially those living in rural Canada and working in seasonal industries.
Finally, of course, there is no mention of the anguish and insecurity which these changes have already created for thousands of workers and their families.
Jean-Claude Basque is with the Common Front for Social Justice.