Feds unleash pogey police, but is that fair?

Dan Leger
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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.



Geographic location: Ottawa, Maritime, Atlantic Canada Quebec

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Recent comments

  • caper
    March 03, 2013 - 07:37

    Well, some care and some do not. walk a mile in a persons shoes before you judge they say. Any time i looked down on a person in life or thought that i would never see myself in there situation, something happened later on to remind me of how, what comes around goes around.And karma has a way of finding everyone. Or maybe you will see your kids in the same situation and think differently then. shame on Harper and the rest of the judgmental better than the rest humans.

  • Garth Staples
    February 27, 2013 - 15:42

    I find it inconceivable that Islanders are willing to turn a blind eye to possible fraudulent activities. The rules have been place for years and at one time were enforced. For many years they weren't . Now they are. Do Islanders want a system without rules?

    • nitpicker
      February 27, 2013 - 15:54

      That's a bit of a strawman argument. I suspect for most the issue is more about the random "Big Brother home visit" tactic and less about turning a blind eye to fraudulent activities. If you are ok with such enforcement measures so be it, but to suggest that those who question it must surely be ok with a "system without rules" is silly.

  • Senior Islander
    February 25, 2013 - 15:52

    I fortunately have never had to draw UIC. However, there are many people who thru no fault of their own are required to file a claim. Sure they can travel some distance to work at minimum wage with which, because of the extra expense, they cannot support their family or they can move to another province or state but sooner or later that will cause a serious problem for an aging population on PEI. What do we do then, shut down the province? For those who protest against suppolrting EI. becareful that some day you do not end up in the same unenviable position yourself.

  • Old Timer
    February 25, 2013 - 10:47

    So now it's a problem to enforce the rules? Only in Atlantic Canada, particularly PEI would you hear this kind of whining. It's an open secret that the provincial government for years helped make the pogey a career choice, laying off its road crews once they had enough stamps, only to take on a whole new crew so they could get theirs. We all knew people who quit a job every time they had enough to collect and nothing was ever said about it. Or how about the same folks retraining over and over each winter on one of the EI programs. Pogey, playing old timers hockey and then 45s at the bootleggers was a way of life in the winter and politicians got elected by allowing it, even enouraging it to happen. It may be popular for media pundits, unions and politicians to weep and wail about the plight of the poor pogey collectors - but it's time people grew up. There's no freebies in this day and age. Real men and women, like our ancestors who founded this country, stand up for their families, go where the work is and teach their children to do the same.

  • Hard Worker
    February 25, 2013 - 09:09

    Where did the 7800 fewer workers on P.E.I go, out west . So there is no need for the SO CALLED EI POLICE TO COME TO THE ISLAND . I would like the fed gov to give back the 57 billion that they took.Lets go to there door . It's hard times here so harper knock knock knock here we come !!!

  • islandwoman
    February 25, 2013 - 08:22

    Is this number of 7800 people on pei now incomeless or did they move? If moving is the case then there will be no one left here in the next few yrs......shame on harper for taking our homes away. Alberta and ones alike may meet the eye and be appealing but our economy here on pei is about to be demolished.

    • Andrew
      February 26, 2013 - 12:52

      I think forget the random home inspections put a random drug test policy in affect. Lots of us have to be drug tested to work why should any of these programs be any different. Kill two birds one stone....... Time to clean up are country....