A report on the impact of recent changes to employment insurance lacked enough data to examine the actual effects.
So P.E.I. and the other Atlantic provinces have been urged to conduct their own analysis in the wake of controversial changes made to EI by the federal government in January 2013.
“Atlantic premiers have a strong role to play in educating Federal counterparts and EI policy staff on the effects of seasonality to ensure that employment supports are available for Atlantic Canadians when they are needed,’’ an advisory panel stated in its final report released Monday.
Premier Robert Ghiz says the P.E.I. Department of Innovation and Advanced Learning presented some preliminary work last year on the impact of EI changes and notes the province will continue to monitor impacts to the local economy.
Several recommendations were made by the Atlantic Premiers’ Panel that was struck in June 2013 to undertake a pan-Atlantic consultation and research into the impact of changes that include requiring people to accept a job within 100 kilometres of their home as long as they are qualified and the pay is at least 70 per cent of their previous salary.
Perhaps the most important recommendation, as far as P.E.I. may be concerned, is the panel’s call for the reinstatement of the Best 14 Weeks and the Extended Employment Insurance Benefits Pilot Project for all economic regions where high seasonal employment occurs.
Participants in the project told the panel they received higher payments on their claims than if the pilot wasn’t in place.
“This is an important recommendation for our province,’’ says Ghiz.
Agriculture sector employers also found it helpful to maintain workers over a whole harvesting season.
Input was gathered over the past year from a wide array of stakeholders, claimants, government representatives and concerned citizens throughout Atlantic Canada.
In-person sessions, a telephone survey and a review of written submissions were done to develop the report.
The panel heard support for the changes from groups that felt that the EI program had inefficiencies that needed to be addressed. However, it did not receive substantiated reports of employers who were benefitting from the changes.
“One thing is abundantly clear — Atlantic Canadians have very deep concerns regarding the potential effects of the changes,’’ the advisory panel states in its final report.
“Much of the fear stems from the issues surrounding the way that the changes were introduced (lack of communications, misunderstanding of the issues) rather than any actual experienced effects.’’
Still, Ghiz maintains that the federal government cannot continue to use a ‘one size fits all’’ approach to EI programs.
“This has a disproportional impact on our province, due to our seasonal economy,’’ says Ghiz.
A spokeswoman for Employment Minister Jason Kenney informed The Guardian that the federal government changes to EI did not change the rules around applying and qualifying for EI, but simply clarified longstanding requirements.
“Furthermore, the federal government proactively gave the data gathered by Statistics Canada to the panel, and the findings could not be more clear: far less than one per cent of EI disqualifications have to do with the federal government’s changes to EI,’’ Alexandra Fortier said in a statement.
“In other words, 99 per cent of EI disqualifications have absolutely nothing to do with our changes.’’
Strong opposition was voiced during the in-person sessions with the Atlantic Premiers’ Panel towards the existence of three classifications of claimants. Some described the multiple classifications as discriminatory, derogatory and unfair.
A strong belief was also held among participants of in-person sessions that out-migration from the provinces is a direct result of the changes to EI.
Premier Stephen Harper shot down that notion during a recent visit to P.E.I.
“To the extent that there’s outmigration, it has nothing to do with the employment system,’’ Harper said after a funding announcement in Charlottetown.
“It is just the reality, and it’s not unique to Prince Edward Island, that there are greater economic opportunities in some parts of the country than others.’’
The federal government has said the changes will better connect people with available job opportunities and they were required as a result of unprecedented labour and skills shortages.
Here are some recommendations from the Atlantic Premiers' Panel on Impacts of Changes to Employment Insurance:
• Federal government should commit to collaborate with the Atlantic premiers to better understand the unique environment in the Atlantic provinces and the role of EI program in the workforce, particularly in seasonal industries.
• Federal government needs to more clearly define all aspects of the changes and to clearly advise the public of the intent and the delivery of the EI program changes.
• Ensure claims are correctly processed in an efficient manner.
• Reinstate the Best 14 Weeks and the Extended Employment Insurance Benefits Pilot Project for all economic regions where high seasonal employment occurs.
• Federal commitment to provide EI data to the provinces to ensure ongoing monitoring of the effects of the EI changes.