Seasonal workers still hoping for changes to EI reforms
Some New Brunswickers who work seasonal jobs and depend on employment insurance during the off-season remain hopeful that new, stricter rules for frequent users could still be changed.
"We have the faith that some details have to be adjusted and have to be remodeled," said Michel Richard, a spokesperson for the Southeast Committee Against Changes to EI and an organizer for the Maritime Fishermen's Union.
Richard says federal politicians need a better understanding of the rural economy in this region and the impact the reforms will have.
"If these people would come to rural New Brunswick and P.E.I. and see what these industries are and the conditions that they put on people, not because they want to abuse them, it's just the fact that everything slows down to a crawl in the wintertime."
More demonstrations are being planned in hopes the new rules will be relaxed to accommodate people with seasonal jobs, said Richard.
"Instead of attacking the people that are dependent on EI, why not bring infrastructure and business and economy into Atlantic Canada?"
Under the EI reforms, which came into effect on Sunday, repeat claimants may be required to accept jobs that are available off-season rather than wait for their old jobs to resume — even if the new jobs pay up to 30 per cent less than their normal wages and are located up to an hour's commute away.
Richard says he's already heard from people who are most worried about the sliding scale of benefits, which would see benefits decreasing with each week the recipient is without work.
People are worried about losing their cars, fishing boats, and even their homes, he said.
Thomas Dupuis, of Shediac, who has been doing road work for 45 years, is concerned about finding a job during the winter months and how he will make ends meet without EI.
"I think it's worrisome for everybody cause nobody's sure. Who wants to hire a 64-year-old man? Nobody," said Dupuis.
"They have to train you and everything. No, wouldn't help me any. Nobody's going to help me that way."
Dupuis says if he's forced to take a job up to an hour away from home, with the cost of gas and the likelihood he'll be earning a lower wage, he'll be working for nothing.
"Where you gonna find a job around here, especially in the winter? The summer is not too bad, but in the winter, [there's] hardly anything going on," he said.
"I think I'd have to go back to work out west with everybody else — wouldn't be able to stay here, couldn't afford it. A lot of people couldn't afford it."
But Minister of State for the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency Bernard Valcourt says criticism surrounding changes to EI are getting overblown.
A job will only be considered suitable for claimants if the pay is better than their EI benefits, said Valcourt, who is also the MP for Madawaska-Restigouche.
"So who can be against a parent, or worker, or family having more income working than drawing EI?"
In addition, if people can't find employment in their community, they will not be cut off, Valcourt said.
The responsibilities of EI claimants has not changed, he said. Unemployed people must actively look for work, just as they've always done, only now they have to keep more detailed records.
"You owe it all of those who fund this very substantive program across Canada to respect the conditions," said Valcourt.
"To argue that we should keep people who want to work year-long on seasonal jobs, I don't think it's a proposition that would find lots of support from those people who want to work year-long."
The changes aren't meant to deprive seasonal workers of their EI benefits, Valcourt stressed. The new requirements simply make it easier to connect available jobs with people who want to work, he said.
New Brunswick, which has a lot of seasonal industries, is traditionally one of the most heavily dependent provinces on the EI program. In the past year, there was an average of 35,019 EI clients each month, with the number reaching as high as 45,830.
The EI reforms could cause problems for many seasonal employers and spur on a further exodus from rural New Brunswick, according to briefing notes prepared for Premier David Alward.
The changes could cut benefits to roughly 465 New Brunswickers during peak periods and reduce the amount of EI benefits flowing into the province by $7 million annually, according to the June 28 document, which was obtained by CBC News through the Right to Information Act.