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COVID-19 creating a season of anxiety for Atlantic Canada's fish plant workers

Workers at a lobster packing plant in Digby County, Nova Scotia.
Workers at a lobster packing plant in Digby County, Nova Scotia. - Tina Comeau

Slowed seafood sales mean reduced hours and incomes for many for 2020

It’s abnormally quiet in Port aux Choix (population 780) on Newfoundland's Great Northern Peninsula.

Candace Hamlyn
Candace Hamlyn

This time last year the shrimp processing plant here was busy and Candace Hamlyn and her co-workers were logging their eighth week of work at the Ocean Choice International (OCI) facility. Hamlyn, who is the Fish, Food and Allied Workers (FFAW-Unifor) union representative at the plant, told SaltWire Network by the time the 2019 shrimp fishing season ended, everyone had between 15 and 21 weeks of work and no worries about qualifying for employment insurance benefits.

Now it's the middle of June and the plant is still idle.

OCI has prepped the plant for operation in the time of COVID-19, with plastic barriers on the processing lines, but the shrimp fishery has not started.

The word is the fishery may not start until July, Hamlyn said.

The pandemic, coupled with a late start to the crab season because of disputes over prices, disrupted the normal processing season.

And each week that goes by creates more anxiety for the 150 people who normally work there.

In this small town, where there’s not much else in the way of employment opportunities, the $16-per-hour wage at the plant provides a decent income.

Their biggest worry is they won't get enough hours at the plant this summer to qualify for a new EI claim.

That same question lingers in the minds of plant workers in Nova Scotia.

Mandy Symonds has worked at a lobster packing plant in Clark's Harbour (population 758) for more than 30 years.

The busy season is usually December to March, she told SaltWire.

But just as work was ramping up, the COVID-19 pandemic hit and lobster markets in China and the U.S. collapsed.

“We lost a lot of work because of this virus," Symonds said.

Because they live in an economic zone that has a slightly lower unemployment rate, Symonds and her co-workers need 560 hours to qualify for EI benefits.

And with the market for live lobster still uncertain — especially following another outbreak of COVID-19 last week in China — Symonds is not optimistic.

The situation is similar for Thelma MacIntosh and nearly 200 others at the Clearwater plant in Lockeport (population 531).

“This time of the year would be our most productive,” MacIntosh said.

In a normal season, she said, “I would be doing six days a week at $16.32 per hour for May, June, July and part of August.”

Government programs, important numbers

Nova Scotia exported $994 million worth of lobster to China and Hong Kong in 2019. - File
Nova Scotia exported $994 million worth of lobster to China and Hong Kong in 2019. - File

The plant packs frozen lobster sections for U.S. and European markets and processes some scallops each season.

Because of the crash in lobster markets, production is down, she said.

The workers are getting shifts in rotation, she said, two weeks on and two weeks off.

“In rotation, we are only able to get about 80 hours a month,” she said.

At that rate, she says, it would take about six months to get the 560 hours they need to qualify for EI benefits.

At 80 hours a month, the workers are earning a monthly net income of around $1,300.

And that creates another financial problem for them.

It kicks them out of the Canada Emergency Response Benefits (CERB) program.

Anyone getting CERB who earns just $1 beyond $1,000 for the month does not get the CERB benefit, said MacIntosh.

“(Prime Minister Justin) Trudeau was wonderful in his thought process when he said no Canadian should go without income (and) they did what they could do to get money in people’s pockets," she said. “But they didn’t think it through."

She says the CERB would have worked better if it simply matched the wages people lost, or allowed people to keep some CERB to supplement the wages they earned if they went back to work, but at reduced hours and income.

Under EI rules, recipients can keep 50 cents of benefits for every dollar they earn working, up to 90 percent of their previous regular weekly earnings.

Better yet, said Macintosh, anyone who qualified for regular EI after March 15 (the date the CERB benefit rolled out) should have been able to collect their regular EI benefits under regular EI rules, instead of being automatically switched to the CERB program.

Macintosh, who will be able to file a new EI claim in a couple of weeks, said, "I don’t want CERB or all the hassles that go with it. All I want is to file a regular EI claim and get regular EI, same as always."

Besides, CERB will eventually end, she added.

Workers say they need to know the federal government has a plan to help those seasonal workers who won’t work enough hours to get EI benefits.

What C-17 means to seasonal workers

Workers process shrimp at a fish plant on Fogo Island. - Contributed
Workers process shrimp at a fish plant on Fogo Island. - Contributed

The Liberal government had proposed Bill C-17 (an Act Respecting Additional COVID Measures), which would have allowed them to tweak EI rules to help seasonal workers.

However, the bill did not get the support of other parties in the House of Commons.

There's been no word on whether the Liberals will re-introduce the bill.

The discussion continues in Ottawa.

At the Fisheries and Oceans Standing Committee meeting on June 17, FFAW president Keith Sullivan suggested Ottawa either decrease the number of hours needed to qualify for maximum benefits or extend 2019 EI benefits to 2020-21.

Meanwhile, Symonds, MacIntosh and Hamlyn say the ideal answer to their current worries is work.

“I mean people try, it’s not that they don’t want to work,” said Symonds. “Some people are working in more than one lobster packing plant. And if they have a day off at one, they’ll call around to other plants to see if there’s any work.”

It’s just wait and see time for everyone, said Hamlyn.

“Everyone wants to be back to work, but if they don’t get back to work or don’t get enough hours to qualify for EI, the hope is (the federal government) will just extend the EI from last year to next May, when the fishing season is ready to start again.”

MacIntosh adds the economy can’t rebound if people don’t work.

“The government cannot keep dumping money into people’s pockets or we’re going to end up in a recession or a depression. The economy has to keep moving.”


About CERB

The Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) provides temporary income support for those who stopped working because of COVID-19. The CERB provides $500 a week for up to 24 weeks or until Oct. 3, 2020, whichever comes first.

The Benefit is available to workers:

  • Residing in Canada, who are at least 15 years old;
  • Who have stopped working because of reasons related to COVID-19 or are eligible for Employment Insurance regular or sickness benefits or have exhausted their Employment Insurance regular benefits or Employment Insurance fishing benefits between December 29, 2019 and October 3, 2020;
  • Who had employment and/or self-employment income of at least $5,000 in 2019 or in the 12 months prior to the date of their application; and,
  • Who have not quit their job voluntarily.

You cannot have earned more than $1,000 in employment and/or self-employment income for 14 or more consecutive days within the four-week benefit period of your claim.

Here's where you apply.

Here's the official COVID-19 response plan.

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