A new report on how employment insurance reforms are affecting Atlantic Canadians calls for revisions and criticizes the federal government for its lack of consultation on the system overhaul that sparked angry protests last year.
The Pan-Atlantic Study of the Impact of Recent Changes to Employment Insurance says increased communication is needed to deal with the "environment of fear" and "distrust."
Under the reforms, which took effect in January 2013, repeat claimants must accept jobs that could pay 30 per cent less than their normal wages and be located an hour's commute away.
Federal officials have said the changes would better connect people with available job opportunities.
The Council of Atlantic Premiers Employment Insurance Advisory Panel, made up of one representative from each of the four Atlantic provinces, came up with eight recommendations in its report, released on Monday.
Among them is to reinstate, in areas of high seasonal employment, the Best 14 Weeks pilot project, which based benefits on a claimant's highest 14 weeks of insurable earnings in a given year.
"By removing this project and increasing the number of weeks that must be used for EI calculations, working partial weeks becomes a disincentive for workers and an issue for employers," the 109-page report states.
Reinstatement would "assist in keeping existing worker resources in place and therefore contributing to the continued viability of businesses in these regions."
The financial formula for the Working While on Claim program also needs to be revised to ensure that claimants will utilize this program and employers can find workers for short-term employment opportunities, the report states.
The other recommendations include:
- The federal government should commit to collaborate with the Atlantic premiers to better understand the unique economic environment in the Atlantic provinces and the role of the EI program in workforce and income stability, particularly in seasonal industries.
- Improved communications to claimants, provincial staff, and Service Canada staff is required by the federal government to clearly define all aspects of the changes and to clearly advise the public of the intent and the delivery of the EI program changes.
- Service standards for the effective delivery of the EI program must be implemented and adhered to in order to provide the required support to claimants and ensure that claims are correctly processed in an efficient manner.
- A clear directive from the federal government needs to be provided to remove the remaining ambiguity regarding the interpretation of how workers who have worked out of province or at a location beyond a one-hour commute in the past will be treated under the new EI changes requiring claimants to accept work of this nature in the future.
- Increased information, communication, and supports are needed for claimants regarding the Social Security Tribunal to ensure that it is a fair and effective mechanism for the review of EI claims.
- Federal commitment to provide EI data to the provinces to ensure ongoing monitoring of the effects of the EI Changes.
"One thing is abundantly clear — Atlantic Canadians have very deep concerns regarding the potential effects of the changes," the report states.
"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."
"Without detailed statistical analysis of the EI claimant data we were unable to provide a detailed data examination of actual effects. We propose that this type of analysis be conducted in the future by the provinces."
The Canadian Taxpayers Federation calls the report a "missed opportunity."
"EI is a mess," Atlantic director Kevin Lacey said in a statement.
"Taxpayers of our region would be better served by provincial politicians fighting for sensible reforms to the EI system that currently serves no one well, rather than simply complaining to Ottawa to try to keep an unsustainable system intact," he said.
"The math on EI is really simple, we can't grow the region by promoting 14 weeks of work in a 52-week economy."
The federation had recommended to the panel that EI be replaced with Individual Employment Insurance Savings Accounts.
Under the proposal, premiums would be paid into an account that belongs to individual workers, money would be drawn from the account upon job loss, and any money left over would be transferred to an individual upon reaching the age of retirement.
Lacey says the growing payroll burden of EI on average Atlantic workers was ignored in the report. In the past five years, EI taxes on Canadian workers have increased 25 per cent to $914 per year, he said. Employers are now paying $1,279 per employee.
The report also failed to address the high rates of EI in some areas where some companies still can't find workers to fill vacation positions, Lacey said.
The Atlantic premiers' panel sought input from a wide range of stakeholders, claimants, government representatives and concerned citizens in preparing its report.
The recommendations are based on in-person sessions, a telephone survey and a review of written submissions.
The panel members include: Pierre-Marcel Desjardins, Ian MacPherson, Darlene Grant Fiander and Iris Petten.