Sweeping changes to employment insurance rules announced Thursday in Ottawa are drawing criticism and concern from many in Prince Edward Island.
Due to the seasonal nature of P.E.I.’s three biggest industries, many workers in the province rely heavily on EI to get through the cold winter months.
But the federal government’s upcoming changes are specifically targeting these repeat EI claimants. Frequent users will have six weeks to find a job in their field. After that, they will have to take any job for which they are qualified, even if it is not in their field and even if it pays 30 per cent less than their previous wage.
Fishers in P.E.I. will be directly impacted by these changes.
“For fisherman, it puts them at a real disadvantage because, where are they going to get these jobs?” said P.E.I. Fishermen’s Association President Mike McGeoghegan.
He pointed to the fact P.E.I. has one of the toughest job markets in the country. Statistics Canada numbers show more than 14 Islanders were looking for work for every job available in the three months ending December, 2011.
McGeoghegan said most fishers would rather not have to access the EI system and would gladly fish year-round.
“(Fishers) have a full-time job, it’s just because the water freezes (that they go on EI). If the water didn’t freeze we’d be fishing all the time,” he said.
Other rule changes will force greater scrutiny on those drawing EI to ensure they are actively looking for a job.
EI claimants will be required to keep a record of their job search to be submitted upon request. The federal government will also email two “job alerts” to EI claimants every day, informing them of available jobs.
Those who have not frequently accessed EI will also have to be willing to take jobs that pay 10-20 per cent lower than their previous wage for employment within their fields and within an hour’s commute of their home.
Malpeque Liberal MP Wayne Easter says he does not believe these changes are fair to Canadians who work in specialized fields or who live in rural areas.
He also questioned government’s ability to police these new rules.
“How are they going to enforce this great grandiose scheme?” Easter said.
“They’ve closed down 99 (EI) offices across the country and they’re going to add enforcement on top of a smaller workforce when they can’t even process claims during high lay-off periods for 10 or 12 weeks? I mean, tell me, how in the hell are they going to do that?”
Premier Robert Ghiz said Thursday he is very concerned about the upcoming changes.
He said P.E.I. has different challenges than other jurisdictions, including a lack of province-wide public transit and a mainly seasonal economy whose three largest industries are farming, fishing and tourism.
“(The changes) could have a hindrance to our industries here in Prince Edward Island that rely on workers coming back year after year that have expertise in these areas,” Ghiz said.
“One size does not fit all across Canada. In Prince Edward Island we do not have golf courses open, we do not grow potatoes and we do not catch lobster in the middle of January and we need the federal government to understand that we are an economy that is still based on our three primary industries agriculture, fisheries and tourism.”
But federal Revenue Minister and P.E.I. MP Gail Shea said these seasonal workers will have to try to find alternate employment in the winter months before turning to EI.
“Seasonal industries are a fact of life in Prince Edward Island…but in other sectors, there may be work available and if work, you know, is suitable for people who are unemployed and if it’s in their area, they will be expected to take it.”
Ghiz remains hopeful he may be able to convince the federal government to make allowances for P.E.I.
Innovation Minister Allen Roach will be meeting with federal Human Resources Minister Diane Finley next week to discuss the issue and negotiate.
In the meantime, Ghiz said the provincial government will continue to monitor the situation “to ensure Prince Edward Island is treated with the respect and dignity that we deserve.”
The new rules are expected to come in effect early in 2013.