Some seasonal workers could get up to 5 more weeks of EI under pilot program
Program greeted as positive step but not enough to address so-called EI black hole
About 7,000 New Brunswickers working in seasonal industries could qualify for up to an additional five weeks of employment insurance under a $189-million pilot project announced by the federal Liberals on Monday.
The program will be available immediately to eligible seasonal workers in the Madawaska-Charlotte and Restigouche-Albert EI economic regions who start a benefit period between Aug. 5 this year and May 30, 2020.
It's designed to address the so-called EI black hole, the gap between when a seasonal worker's employment insurance benefits run out and when the worker's job starts up again — a problem that has prompted numerous protests on the Acadian Peninsula this year.
Jean‑Yves Duclos, the minister of families, children and social development, made the announcement at a fish plant in Escuminac, N.B.
It comes just days before the provincial election campaign officially starts.
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"We know that some seasonal workers have long struggled to find sufficient hours of work to qualify for enough EI benefits to carry them through the off-season," said Duclos.
"Economic diversification and economic development are key to finding long-term solutions to help seasonal workers, but our government also understands that this is a pressing issue that requires short-term actions."
The additional five weeks will "help close the income gap and help give individuals and families the support they need when they need it most," he said to applause.
Fernand Thibodeau, a spokesperson for the Action Committee on Employment Insurance for Seasonal Workers in the Acadian Peninsula, said the pilot is a step in the right direction.
But it "has not resolved the black hole at all."
Thibodeau said he heard from several workers who were either angry or crying following the announcement. They were hoping to see either a reduction in the number of weeks required to qualify for EI, or more weeks of benefits added.
The additional five weeks amount to only an extra $2,000 per worker, at most, said Thibodeau.
He contends there are also still too many restrictions. Workers have to have had at least three claims in which they received regular or fishing benefits within the previous five years, and at least two of those claims would have to have started around the same time of year.
"My preoccupation right now is the people who have to find 17 weeks to work and 525 hours. Some just have five weeks, six weeks. What [are] we doing with them, you know? So we have a problem there too. So we have to find a way to make them work more."
Thibodeau said his group wants to work with the federal and provincial governments to find ways to create more full-time work.
He is also calling on Ottawa to study the province's EI economic regions. He argues the data is out of date and the boundaries should be redrawn to reflect that it's more difficult for workers to find jobs in rural areas than cities.
The government said the pilot is targeting regions with "higher proportions of seasonal claimants to the total labour force and higher than average EI unemployment rates in 2017."
The other selected EI economic regions include:
- Bas-Saint-Laurent–Côte-Nord, Que.
- Central Quebec.
- Both the EI region of Charlottetown and the rest of Prince Edward Island.
- Chicoutimi-Jonquière, Que.
- Eastern Nova Scotia.
- Gaspésie–Îles-de-la-Madeleine, Que.
- Newfoundland and Labrador (excludes capital).
- Northwestern Quebec.
- Western Nova Scotia.
- Yukon (excludes capital).
An estimated 51,500 seasonal workers across the country will benefit from the program, according to the government.
Ottawa also plans to provide up to $41 million over two years to all provinces and territories through labour market development agreements to provide skills training, wage subsidies and employment supports for workers in seasonal industries.
The former federal Conservative government cancelled a similar pilot program in 2012.
New Brunswick voters are expected to head to the polls on Sept. 24.
With files from Serge Bouchard