P.E.I. facing hiring crisis in face of EI changes, warns business

Atlantic premiers' panel on EI changes wraps up hearings in Charlottetown

Nigel Armstrong NArmstrong@TheGuardian.pe.ca
Published on January 20, 2014

an MacPherson, centre, P.E.I. representative on the Atlantic Premiers Panel on changes to the EI system and Burt MacKinnon, director of Skills P.E.I, listen as Don Cudmore, executive director of the Tourism Industry Association of P.E.I, tells of the impact of the EI changes on members of his association during a meeting in Charlottetown Monday night.

©Guardian photo by Brian McInnis

There is a potential business crisis looming in a few months as seasonal industries get ready to hire, a panel investigating Employment Insurance heard.

The Atlantic Premiers' Panel on Impacts of Changes to Employment Insurance held hearings in Montague and Charlottetown Monday to conclude the Island public hearings after meetings in Tignish and Summerside last week.

Ian MacPherson, executive director of the P.E.I. Fishermen’s Association is the Island representative on the panel and chaired the P.E.I. meetings.

Don Cudmore, executive director of the Tourism Industry Association of P.E.I. said tourism operators are preparing to hire.

“I’m hoping we wont have a bit of a panic situation,” said Cudmore. “You see how many people have gone west.

“Our tourism sector has been suffering for years and years and years from decisions that are made in Ottawa that impact our workforce,” said Cudmore.

“In order for us to grow, in order for us to continue to pay taxes, in order for us to employ the number of people that we employ, we need cooperation from the federal government rather than the negativity we get on a regular basis.”

Changes to EI are even making it hard for tourism operators to hire part-time staff to cope with off season events like hockey tournaments, he said.

The out-migration of prospective employees to the west was echoed by Kathy Hambly, executive director of the Greater Charlottetown Area Chamber of Commerce.

Loss of workers is also happening just as changes affecting the hiring of foreign workers hits the business community, creating a “perfect storm” of problems, she said.

“It’s a double whammy,” said Hambley. “If we can’t get the employees here because they have left, then we are also penalized as employers who are trying to fill those gaps with temporary foreign workers."

Charlotetown MLA Richard Brown confronted misinformation and made his own suggestion to fix the EI system.

In his 30 years in politics, he never found anyone wanting to get laid off, he said.

“We have to make that clear to the Ottawan-ites and the Albertans because they believe that we in Atlantic Canada are just working for EI, which I think it totally incorrect,” said Brown.

“The federal government would have everyone believe that the Employment Insurance fund is in a deficit or is bankrupt,” he said of further misunderstanding.

“This is simply not a fact,” said Brown. “The fund has a $24 billion surplus over the last 13 years.”

He wants the EI fund to be set up the same way as the Canada Pension Plan.

“Premiums that are collected and the benefits paid will not be on the government’s books,” said Brown. “These funds would be managed by an independent board. The premiums would be invested by the same people that are investing the Canada Pension Plan.”

He also wants training programs to be part of the definition of “reasonable job search.”

Jane Ledwell and Michelle Jay from the Status of Women told the panel that the changes are creating economic stress that is forcing women to stay in abusive relationships.

“The changes are significant to women because they diminish the ability of women to apply creativity, adaptability and flexibility to get the incomes they require to raise their families in good health and play a full and active role in the community,” said Ledwell.

“The changes to the EI system need to be examined through a gender lens that also considers diversity factors including age and ability, aboriginal status, geographic location, whether rural or urban and other diversity factors.”

Greg McKee, newly appointed executive director of the P.E.I. Shellfish Association, told the panel that his industry depends on volunteer hours.

The shellfish association has members working long hours to enhance public oyster beds, he said. It also has a number of programs supporting research into invasive species and viruses.

“Administrators that police EI must recognize that a fisher volunteering back to sector associations is a viable alternative to employment search,” said McKee.

Repairing and maintaining gear in the off season already is counted as “not available for work” but EI investigators don’t seem to always know that, he said.

McKee also suggested that perhaps a way could be worked to allow unclaimed EI premiums to be configured as pension benefits for independent fishers.