Marlene Giersdorf's battle for employment insurance benefits may have had a happy ending, but her saga proved to be an important test of Ottawa's EI new rules. Clearly those rules need to be tweaked.
The 30-year-old Montague mother became a familiar face on the news provincially and nationally during her lone protest of the EI changes that came into effect in January. Her point was simple. After leaving a job in December and qualifying for benefits, she suddenly found herself cut off in January when she couldn't take a job in Charlottetown. Giersdorf, mother of an eight-year-old boy, doesn't have a car or access to public transit.
In the subsequent weeks, she generated both support and criticism, but in the end, her protest worked. Government relented this week and reinstated her benefits.
This was certainly good news for Giersdorf for whom justice prevailed, but as she herself pointed out when she said she'll continue her protest, there are others like her who either can't or won't go public.
Canadians shouldn't have to fight for the EI benefits to which they're entitled, yet this is exactly what Marlene Giersdorf had to do. How many others out there are in the same boat and face the same battle with the federal government? Worse, how many are in the same situation and won't fight?
With Giersdorf now off the front pages, Human Resources Minister Diane Finley may think all is well with EI. She would be wrong. Throughout this whole dispute, Finley and her cabinet colleague in P.E.I., Egmont MP Gail Shea, have been repeating the same talking points: that the changes aim to support Canadians looking for work and that the new rules would accommodate individual circumstances.
Why did Giersdorf have to fight so fiercely for this accommodation? Was it because the rules themselves weren't flexible enough to allow front-line staff assessing her EI claim to continue her benefits once the changes came into effect in January? Or did staff misinterpret the new regulations? Her dilemma prompted both negative and positive reaction, but the relevant point here is that it wasn't reasonable to cut off someone who had qualified only the previous month and expect them to travel to Charlottetown for a job to which she had no means of transportation. That government came around in the end vindicates Giersdorf, but her very public dispute with Ottawa has cast light on some glaring flaws in the new rules.
We rooted for, and sympathized with, Giersdorf throughout her battle, and we feel for other EI applicants who have found themselves in similar situations. But we also commiserate with the front-line staff who are charged with parsing and applying these new rules. It can't be easy.
The federal government needs to revisit the changes to employment insurance, recognize the flaws and correct them. And in the process, it also needs to reconsider what's driving the changes. Is it, as union leaders in the region suggested recently, about creating overall lower wages for Canadians by forcing jobless Canadians to take jobs for which they're not prepared or skilled and which will pay them far cheaper wages? Is it about blaming the jobless for being without work? In the view of the region's federations of labour, the EI rules aren't a solution; they're a penalty.
The experience of Marlene Giersdorf seems to support that theory.