Kings Landing workers complain of same EI 'black hole' as northern workers

Stephen Henry's employment insurance runs out Feb. 16, more than three months before he starts his seasonal job at Kings Landing, a tourist attraction on the St. John River that recreates a 19th-century village.

Seasonal workers say employment insurance benefits have been shrinking each year

Claude Gosselin, left, and Stephen Henry are seasonal workers at Kings Landing, a tourist site about a 30-minute drive from Fredericton. They say they're experiencing a 'black hole' in the employment insurance system. (Ed Hunter/CBC )

Stephen Henry's employment insurance runs out Feb. 16, more than three months before he starts his seasonal job at  Kings Landing, a tourist attraction on the St. John River that recreates a 19th-century village.

He's one of a number of people who play parts at the site west of Fredericton who say they're facing a situation familiar to seasonal workers in northern New Brunswick.

Both groups say they're experiencing a "black hole" in the employment insurance system.

Their unemployment benefits are running out before they can start their seasonal jobs again.

After seeing protests from seasonal workers on the Acadian Peninsula, Henry said he wanted people to know that the 70 workers at Kings Landing are running into a similar shortfall in benefits.

Henry, plays a carpenter at Kings Landing, said he's now experiencing the longest gap in work since he started working there more than a decade ago. 

He'll be without any income whatsoever between now and the end of May.

About 70 seasonal workers are employed at the Kings Landing in Prince Willliam, taking the parts of characters who might be found in a 19th-century settlement. (CBC/Catherine Harrop)

Hard to find work in-between

Claude Gosselin is in the same boat. Both men say it's unlikely anyone is going to hire them for just the in-between months.

"If I went to you and applied for a job with you and said, 'Well I'm only going to be here until the end of May,' are you going to hire me?" Henry said.

Gosselin said it would difficult to find another job when he's not working at Kings Landing. He's only worked there and at a sawmill.

"I don't have an education whatsoever," he said. "It's kind of hard to go find a job somewhere else."

The number of weeks of employment insurance you are eligible for is determined by where you live and when you apply.

Gosselin and Henry both live in a zone that had a 7.7 per cent rate of unemployment in October.

When that rate drops, so does the number of insurable weeks because the assumption is that it is easier to find a job.

Gosselin said he's seen the number of weeks of unemployment he's been eligible for go down each year, from 28 weeks three years ago to 17 weeks over the last year.

Benefits based on job market 

Samuel LeBreton, a Fredericton-based labour economist, said employment insurance benefits are all based on where you live and what unemployment rates are like that region.

The province is divided into three economic regions. Each region has a constantly re-calculated unemployment rate.

The lower the unemployment rate, the lower the number of weeks on unemployment benefits, since it's supposed to be easier to find a job, he said. 

Labour economist Samuel LeBreton says employment insurance is all about where you live and what unemployment rates are doing in that region. (CBC )

If you live in the Fredericton-Moncton-Saint John economic region and you applied for unemployment benefits in October 2017, when unemployment rates were 6.2 per cent, you would receive benefits for 17 weeks.

If you applied at the same time but lived next door in the Madawaska-Charlotte region, where unemployment rates were 7.7 per cent, you would have 19 weeks of benefits.

The same application in the Restigouche-Albert region, where unemployment rates were 11.8 per cent, would have given you 27 weeks.

Samuel LeBreton says the theory behind the system is that in regions with lower unemployment rates, people should be able to find other work.

The theory that seasonal workers should be able to find jobs when their work runs out because the job market is better doesn't necessarily work in practice,  LeBreton said.

"In theory, it's easy to say when you're done your seasonal job, you find something else until the next season starts," he said.

"But in reality, the employers can't say, 'I'm going to hire you for just six weeks, and then I'll let you go to your seasonal job.' It just doesn't work that way."

MPs working on solution

Karen Ludwig, the MP for New Brunswick Southwest and chair of the New Brunswick caucus, said MPs in the province are aware of the situation and are working to find a solution.

"All 10 of us take it very seriously," she said.

New Brunswick Southwest MP Karen Ludwig says New Brunswick MPs are aware of seasonal workers' concerns and are working to find a solution. (CBC )

In late 2018, the federal government plans to review its employment insurance policy. Ludwig said her caucus will be pushing for consideration of seasonal workers in whatever changes are made.

Last week, Wilfred Roussel, the Liberal MLA for Shippagan-Lamèque-Miscou, introduced a motion in the provincial legislature that would ask the federal government to modify what seasonal workers in rural areas would need to qualify and retain benefits longer. 

With files from Catherine Harrop