Session told EI changes bringing fear, depression to region

Atlantic Premier's Council holds meeting in Montague to hear from those affected by Employment Insurance changes

Steve Sharratt comment@theguardian.pe.ca
Published on January 20, 2014
Mary MacNeil, left, and Marie Burge advise the Premiers’ Council on EI reform in Montague Monday that changes have created nightmares for many affected and involved in seasonal jobs.
Guardian photo by Steve Sharratt

MONTAGUE  — Employment Insurance changes are creating depression and fear within the Atlantic Canadian population, the premiers' council was told in Montague earlier today.

"The response is to head to the airport or get in a car and go west," said Marie Burge of the P.E.I. Coalition for Fair EI. "We want the federal government to go back to the old insurance system."

Participants told stories of people spending months just to hear from EI officials or trying to talk to the now defunct local tribunals. One young mother with a legitimate claim has had to borrow $15,000 to pay her bills.

"The feds have no idea the impact this is having on seasonal workers," said Mary MacNeill of the coalition.

About 40 people attended the session that was told 1,300 people are now off the E.I. claims list while no new jobs have been generated.

In fact, CUPE rep and coalition member Lori MacKay said the changes are making people feel like they are breaking the law for even trying to apply.

“People tell me they are made to feel like criminals and the EI changes are penalizing the province without bringing jobs,’’ she said. “It’s only contributing to an underground economy.”

The council was told people can’t get through to the 1-800 number, work part-time because benefits are cut, and are provided benefits for fewer weeks than before.

Island restaurants have been impacted because they can’t afford to keep a chef on during winter months because of the insurance changes. And farms and fishermen can’t find consistent help during the work season because former employees are being cut from the EI rolls.

Karen Tsistinas told the panel about her daughter, a single mom, who has had so many problems and delays to get her benefits that she had to borrow $15,000 to pay her bills.

“These changes have created a wave of desperation in communities,’’ said Anne Wheatley of the Cooper Institute. “…and created a significant negative impact.”

The Montague claims processing centre closes in April and the panel was told the 22 jobs have been moved to Conservative MP Peter MacKay’s riding in New Glasgow, N.S.

Even provincial case workers said there is a drop in the enrolment for Skills Canada opportunities because there are no benefits provided to take the courses.

“People who want to upgrade their literacy and do better have to drop out,’’ said one counsellor. “Because the choice they have is too take the course, or get out and work to put food on the table.”

The coalition called for the federal government to return to the former EI system which they insist was fair and practical.