Federal Employment Minister Jason Kenney
©Canadian Press photo
Score this one for Employment Minister Jason Kenney. A report commissioned by Atlantic premiers on the impact of recent changes to employment insurance has come back with inconclusive evidence, largely vindicating the minister. Release of the report was delayed for weeks and now we know why.
Commissioned a year ago, the report was finally made public Monday. The timing was immediately suspicious, coming on a long weekend for many people and the day before the Canada Day holiday, usually a dead zone for any kind of close scrutiny.
The report concluded there was insufficient data to examine the actual effects. The premiers, and indeed many Atlantic Canadians, expected the report to be a ringing condemnation for cutting off benefits to thousands of claimants, forcing many of them to head west for work, and dealing a devastating blow to the important Atlantic seasonal industries of fisheries, agriculture and tourism.
Instead, P.E.I. and the other Atlantic provinces are told to conduct their own analysis of the changes enacted in January 2013. So what exactly did we pay for? Where is the irrefutable proof that jobless Atlantic Canadians are being forced to leave family and friends for the vast, cold, pitiless Alberta oilfields, thanks to heartless decision-making in Ottawa?
Premier Robert Ghiz lamely explained that his government presented some preliminary results last year on the EI changes and says the province will continue to monitor impacts to the local economy. It sounded like a concession speech.
The panel concluded that one thing is abundantly clear - Atlantic Canadians have deep concerns regarding the potential effects of the changes. What we still don’t know is whether those fears are well founded. It appears much of the concern stems from the lack of communications and misunderstanding surrounding the way that the changes were introduced, rather than any actual negative effects.
Mr. Kenney’s department reiterated that the federal government changes to EI did not change the rules around applying and qualifying for EI, but simply clarified longstanding requirements. Ottawa insists the findings are clear - less than one per cent of EI disqualifications have to do with the federal changes.
Until the premiers can come up with something more concrete, it’s time to cool criticism of the EI changes. Minister Kenney is on P.E.I. next week for a meeting with provincial labour ministers and his welcome should be much warmer following the EI report release.
The Canadian Taxpayers Federation says the report missed an opportunity to support sensible EI reforms that will benefit the majority of Atlantic Canadians. The CTF insists we can’t grow the region by promoting 14 weeks of work in a 52-week economy. The federation is upset that two issues were ignored in the report: how to address the high rates of EI in some areas of the region while some companies still cannot find workers to fill vacant jobs; and the growing payroll burden of EI on average Atlantic workers who rarely, if ever, draw on the program.
Over the past five years, EI taxes on Canadian workers have gone up 25 per cent to $914 per year while employers are now paying $1,279 per employee. A bill before the Commons would prevent Ottawa from diverting EI funds to other programs and force down premiums.
The CTF recommended that EI be replaced with Individual Employment Insurance Savings Accounts where premiums are paid into an individual worker’s account. Money is drawn from the account upon job loss and leftover funds would be transferred to an individual upon reaching the retirement age. That idea seems to make more sense than anything in the premier’s panel report.