The Maritime spring, a season of both sun and storm, is still a month away. But judging by the black clouds massing on the horizon, spring 2013 could be more storm than sun. And the disturbance isn’t meteorological, it’s political and it’s all about employment insurance.
It’s obvious now that the Conservative government is determined to crack down on users of the EI system. It has already made it much harder for seasonal workers to establish a claim. Now it’s putting on the pressure, in a very personal way.
No longer do forms and phone calls cut it. Ottawa has unleashed the pogey police.
Employment insurance has long been an angst-filled topic in Canada. It pits the securely employed against those less so. It’s not even properly named, because real insurance would have employers and employees pay into a fund that would only be used to pay benefits to the jobless.
But that’s not how it works. Instead, governments over the generations have systematicallypaid out some of the money in benefits and kept the rest. At one point, that so-called “EI surplus” reached a total, on paper, of $57 billion. That money has long since vanished into the haze of federal spending.
Governments of different stripes have attempted to “reform” EI over the years, rarely to the benefit of workers. The most controversial changes were made in 1994 and 1996, when the Chretien Liberals slashed benefits and raised the bar on claims. That helped balance the books but it cost them dozens of seats in Atlantic Canada in the 1997 election.
The party now in power repeatedly called for an end to the EI surplus as an unfair tax onemployment. That was when it was in opposition. Now, it’s like all that never happened. Rather than return the money to its rightful owners, the workers and employers, the Tories are perpetuating the larcenous policies of Liberal administrations past.
Not only are they keeping the cash but in a policy change aimed right at the heart of the Maritime economy, they’re finding ways to pay out even less. As of January, it’s much harder for a seasonal worker to make a claim and to maintain it until new work can be found.
At the same time, premiums have gone higher. A substantial increase has been laid on for 2013, with the employee share rising six per cent to $891.12 per year and the employer portion by the same percentage to $1,176. That’s more than three times the rate of inflation.
So costs to everyone are rising while benefits will go to far fewer. The latest figuresavailable suggest the effects are already being felt, especially in provinces with high rates of seasonal work.
Ottawa reported last week that the number of people receiving EI benefits fell for the third time in four months, down by 1.6 per cent. The largest per capita drop happened in P.E.I., where 7,800 fewer workers were receiving benefits. This, in the dead of winter, when you would expect claims to peak.
Ottawa is also cutting the number of civil servants running the program, except in one keyarea. It has assigned 50 inspectors to visit people in their homes, to makesure the shrinking beneficiaries list is being patrolled as tightly as possible and to bleed more money out of the system.
Ottawa says it expects to take back $120 million in Quebec alone and $430 million from thenational total.
Sending a government agent to your door makes the process personal. Ottawa says the visits are based on a random list, but is that fair? Many people will get the personal investigative touch without any evidence of problems with their claims.
The backlash has already started from the usual sources, labour unions and groups claiming to represent the unemployed. But it will go beyond that. The pogey police themselves say they fear for their safety.
Nobody can complain about enforcing fair rules for employment insurance. But that’s the key point: EI isn’t fair, to taxpayers, workers or employers. And these changes won’t make it better.
Dan Leger is a Halifax-based writer and commentator. Twitter: @Dantheeditor.