Only days after the new federal employment insurance regulations became effective, a Lower Montague woman whose EI benefits were cut off has generated a groundswell of empathy. It also has refueled anger toward the federal government. Clearly others are apprehensive about how the new EI changes could affect them and their families.
For the past year, Ottawa's planned overhaul of the EI system has been the subject of heated debate between government and its critics. Ottawa has claimed the change is meant to make the system more effective, while remaining flexible enough to respond to individual circumstances and need. But detractors say it's an attack on seasonal workers and regions dependent on seasonal industries. Ultimately, they warn, the rules will force workers to work for less money, take jobs for which they're not suited, and in some cases, travel long distances to get to work.
It seems that's the case of Marlene Geirsdorf, the Lower Montague woman who has drawn national attention after being denied benefits because she won't go to Charlottetown to work. It's not that she doesn't want to - she can't. She has no car or any means of public transportation to get her to the capital city, yet Service Canada has cut off her benefits - which she began receiving in November after leaving a job for stress reasons. She was told to apply to the provincial government for welfare.
Since then, the 30-year-old single mother's plight has triggered a deluge of reaction. Online sentiments reflect a split. Many commenters question why she would leave a job without having another one lined up, and assert that EI is a program of last resort for specific and very occasional circumstances; others adamantly support Geirsdorf, insisting she's a victim of federal cutbacks aimed to penalize seasonal workers. Since she began her protest outside the Service Canada office in Montague Monday, she has received many offers of support.
So what has been government's response to this story? Human Services Minister Diane Finley's spokesperson has repeated the familiar talking points: that jobs are available in Montague, that personal circumstances of EI claimants are considered, and that "EI will continue to be there."
Those must seem like pretty hollow words to Geirsdorf, who appears to have a legitimate claim to EI. The half-dozen jobs available in Montague are mainly trucking or science-related jobs, she says, for which she isn't qualified. Yet her benefits have been cut off.
Geirsdorf is appealing the decision, and she may well triumph at the end of the day. But that doesn't negate her experience or alter the implied warning for other EI claimants. How many others could end up having to fight for their benefits?
No big surprise
The recent poll showing the federal Liberals have rebounded in Atlantic Canada wasn't particularly surprising.
The poll, conducted by Corporate Research Associates in Halifax, revealed that the federal Liberal party increased its standings in all four Atlantic provinces so significantly that it leads the other three main parties in the region for the first time since August 2010.
Given the unpopularity of some of the current policies of the governing Conservatives, and the fact that this is traditional Liberal territory, some improvement in the polls for the Liberals was predictable. The interesting question is, will they be able to build on this substantial jump in support?