New Brunswick

Nowhere to turn: Seasonal workers living in 'black hole' of no EI benefits

Many seasonal workers in northeast New Brunswick are beginning to live in a 'black hole' — the period between their employment insurance benefits running out and the start of seasonal employment. They are fighting for changes to be made.

Rallies and protests bring attention to employment insurance gap for seasonal workers

The Action Committee on Employment Insurance for Seasonal Workers in the Acadian Peninsula held a protest rally demanding change recently in Tracadie. (Radio-Canada/Héloïse Bargain)

After working seasonal jobs for 45 years, Alma Breau doesn't know what she's going do next. 

She is one of many rural New Brunswickers who are living in what many are calling the "black hole" — their employment insurance benefits have run out and the seasonal work they do won't start for months. 

"I've worked all my life and I've never been in a situation like this," Breau said from her home in Tracadie. "I'm living in the black hole and I don't know where to turn."

Breau said she learned her benefits stopped on Jan. 7, despite being told her benefits were good until the end of February.

"What do they expect me to live on? And I'm not the only one that will be facing this," she said. 

Committee revived

The Action Committee on Employment Insurance for Seasonal Workers in the Acadian Peninsula was revived after battling EI changes in 2011. Breau said they have been meeting with MLAs from the region and members of Parliament to bring attention to the situation and writing as many letters as they can. 

According to Breau, committee spokesman Fernand Thibodeau said they knew seasonal workers were going to run into this problem after changes were made to Restigouche-Albert economic region, which includes northeast New Brunswick in August 2017.

The area in purple shows the Restigouche-Albert economic region, which includes northeast New Brunswick. (Government of Canada)

The gradual drop in the unemployment rate from 14. 2 per cent in Jan. 2017 to 11.5 per cent in Aug. 2017 now makes it more difficult for seasonal workers to access employment insurance benefits. The number of weeks of benefits is linked to the unemployment rates of the different regions.

Seasonal workers in the Restigouche-Albert economic region had to work for 490 hours to receive 23 weeks of benefits. In fall 2016, a seasonal worker needed 420 hours of work to receive benefits for 30 weeks.

Yet, the industries that employ those seasonal workers — fishing, blueberries, peat moss, among others — aren't operating now, Breau said.

"They need to do something to help us," she said. 

'Same song'

Breau said while they've been meeting with provincial officials since September, they are getting tired with the lack of progress.

"They are singing the same song to us. I'm fed up hearing that song," she said. 

Wilfred Roussel, the MLA for Shippagan-Lamèque-Miscou, said they are working to make changes. On Friday, he 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. 

"The motion will be debated and we're hoping the opposition will support us," he said.

Roussel said the system has to change and his motion is to help show the federal government the province supports MPs fighting to help rural areas. 

"Leaving people a period of six, seven weeks, maybe more, those persons without revenue and this is what has to change," he said. "Seasonal workers have a particular problem that has to be solved." 

Big rally planned

In the meantime, Breau and Thibodeau are organizing a large protest rally that will be held at Liberal MP Serge Cormier's office in Caraquet on Feb. 18. 

Thibodeau said Roussel's motion is a positive step and he hopes the right people in Ottawa will pay attention to it.

A rally was held outside of Tracadie-Sheila MLA Serge Rouselle's office. (CBC)

He said the committee spurred the motion after holding a protest rally at the Tracadie-Sheila MLA Serge Rousselle's office, where they refused to leave until speaking to the politicians. 

"I hope the motion will be respected because what the people are living right now is terrible," Thibodeau said. "What they are losing in money, what they are losing in weeks of EI...it's not good for the people and it's not good for the economy." 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Gail Harding

Web Writer

Gail Harding began her career as a journalist in the newspaper industry before joining CBC as a web writer.

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