New Brunswick

Why it's not easy to escape EI 'black hole'

For months, seasonal workers have been protesting in all parts of New Brunswick for the government to act on the EI "black hole."

Seasonal workers held protest after protest this winter when better economy led to fewer EI benefits

Fernand Thibodeau, speaking on behalf of protesters at a rally in front of Dominic LeBlanc's offices in Shediac. (CBC)

The federal solution to the unemployment insurance problem in New Brunswick has done little to ease frustrations of seasonal workers.

More than 200 people came from different areas of the province to take part in yet another protest this week — this one in front of the constituency office of federal minister Dominic LeBlanc.

Ottawa gave $10 million to New Brunswick in its recent federal budget for a training and work experience program that would essentially allow workers to continue collecting EI benefits during the "black hole" period — between now and June.

But by the looks of Wednesday's protest, many more were interested in taking to the streets than going back to school.

About 250 people were at Wednesday's rally, just as the federal work program to help ease the 'black hole' got underway. (CBC)

Only about 20 to 30 people signed up for the program, out of an estimated 40,000 seasonal workers on EI in the province.

Many of those interviewed on the streets said they're simply too old or not interested in learning new skills.

Instead, they would like to see the EI formula recalculated so they have benefits all winter or for there to be more opportunities in their own line of work.

So what's the 'black hole'?

The so-called "black hole" is the gap between when a seasonal worker's employment insurance benefits run out and when the worker's job starts up again.

The amount of insurance the workers get will depend on the number of hours worked. The more hours worked, the longer the EI benefits will last.

For instance, those who worked in the fishing industry in the Acadian Peninsula last summer had to work a minimum of 14 weeks, or just over three months, to qualify for EI.

But those who managed to find only 14 weeks of work received benefits for 23 weeks, based on the program's formula. That means they're without income, or in the black hole, for 15 weeks, or about three and a half months, before the next season starts and their wages resume.

Steven Hughes of Lamèque overcame the black hole by stringing together several jobs.

He worked as a deckhand on a snow-crab fishing boat from April until mid-July, then took out his own fishing boat to catch halibut in July and herring and rock crab in the fall, which kept him working until November.

He worked about 26 weeks, and was actually able to qualify for more insurance than he would need before being called back to work.

But Hughes said not everyone in the Acadian Peninsula can find as much work.

Steven Hughes works on a snow-crab fishing boat but also has his own licence for other fish to make sure he gets enough work every summer. (CBC)

He said those who work in the processing plants have been the worst off, and he expects next winter to be even more dire, with snow-crab processing being the main employer in the area.

"The government is pushing us as fishermen to have the fishing season end before the right whales arrive on the fishing ground," said Hughes, referring to measures announced to protect the endangered mammal after a historically devastating summer for North Atlantic right whales.

"We're talking maybe a four, five-week season. That's going to be affecting the people who work in the fish factory. They won't have enough weeks to qualify for EI."

Hughes expects next year to be even worse for people trying to make EI benefits stretch until their work starts up again. (CBC)

To make matters worse, said Hughes, the minimum number of weeks of work to qualify for EI will go up to 16 weeks next year from 14.

"Everybody is very worried," he said. 

"In the Acadian Peninsula, we all depend on the fishing industry. If there's less EI to go around, the people who run the stores won't be able to sell as much as before. The whole economy is going to be going down."

Better economy, fewer benefits

The reason seasonal workers throughout the province are getting fewer EI cheques this year is essentially because the economy is better.

The weeks-to-benefits formula is based on the unemployment rate, with the logic that lower unemployment means it's easier for seasonal workers to find work in the off-season.

Unemployment has gone down in New Brunswick in the past year, and even up north many employers say they're having a hard time finding workers to fill vacancies.

  Unemployment Rate by EI Economic Region (%, month of April) 
Fredericton-Moncton-Saint John6.96.7

According to experts, that's why there's an issue this year.

"The EI system was set up at a time where you had chronic high unemployment," said David Campbell, an economic development consultant.

Economist David Campbell said even though the population is increasing, New Brunswick still needs "more ambition" to attract the workforce needed to strengthen and grow the economy. (CBC)

"And now you've got a situation where there's lots of industries struggling to find workers, even in these areas that have high unemployment," he said. "So it's a bit of a weird paradox. So in the long run, we have to reform the system so that it encourages people to work in the jobs that are available in their region."

Others, like Hughes, believe the solution is to create more work opportunities in the fishing industry.

"Entrepreneurs and the government have to sit hand in hand to basically create an economy that's 16 weeks," said Hughes.

But in the meantime, those who are angry are showing no sign of slowing down, with a protest already planned for next week.


Gabrielle Fahmy is a reporter based in Moncton. She's been a journalist with the CBC since 2014.