Charlottetown candidates feeling heat to return P.E.I. to one EI zone

With just two weeks to go before New Glasgow Lobster Suppers closes for the season, kitchen manager Mike Forrest says "the unfairness" of the EI system is playing out at the restaurant. 

'We've been told that this is going to be rectified. It still is not. We want this changed'

The kitchen manager at New Glasgow Lobster Suppers says because some of his workers live in the Charlottetown EI zone and others in the P.E.I. zone, some have already qualified for EI benefits, while others haven't. (Steve Bruce/CBC)

With just two weeks to go before New Glasgow Lobster Suppers closes for the season, kitchen manager Mike Forrest says "the unfairness" of the EI system is playing out at the restaurant. Some kitchen staff have started lining up, asking for more hours. But others, have not.

Forrest said it has nothing to do with different work ethics, but everything to do with where they live.  

"We're being presented with the challenge where two employees are doing the exact same job, but because one lives, in some instances, on the other side of the street, they need more hours to qualify for EI," said Forrest. 

That's been the reality on P.E.I. since 2014, when the federal Conservative government divided the province into two EI zones, meant to reflect their differing economic realities. 

Because the unemployment rate in the Charlottetown is consistently lower, those who live there have to work more hours to qualify for EI, and are eligible for fewer weeks of benefits. 

175 more hours, 7 fewer weeks 

As it stands, the unemployment rate in the Charlottetown zone is 4.1 per cent lower than the rate in the P.E.I. zone. So, its residents need to work 175 extra hours to qualify. Their EI payments also stop seven weeks earlier. 

The federal Conservative government divided P.E.I. into these two EI zones back in 2014. (Government of Canada)

"In some cases, that [time] we're closed isn't enough for an 'urban' EI claim to carry through," said Forrest. "So that's additional pressure for those families. They have to figure out how to make ends meet before the new season starts."

"It's an unfair system," he said.

All five candidates in the Charlottetown riding said that's a sentiment they've heard a lot at the doors during this federal election campaign. 

'It's an unfair system,' says Mike Forrest, kitchen manager at New Glasgow Lobster Suppers, of the two zones for EI on P.E.I. (Steve Bruce/CBC)

They've also heard from the mayors and councils in Charlottetown, Stratford, and Cornwall — who are formally calling on candidates to commit to returning the Island to one EI zone. 

P.E.I.'s tourism industry association wants that same commitment. It argues the two-zone system has made it harder for seasonal businesses to attract workers from the Charlottetown area, as they can't count on enough weeks of EI to get  through the off-season. 

"We're hearing that from multiple operators across the Island. It just adds to the frustration of getting people to work," said Kevin Moufflier, the association's CEO. 

"We've been told that this is going to be rectified. It still is not. We want this changed."

A broken promise 

During the 2015 election campaign, all four Island Liberal candidates vowed to return the Island to a single zone if they were elected as part of a Liberal government. All of them were elected. 

'I've done my darndest,' says Liberal incumbent Sean Casey. He won't commit to returning P.E.I. to a single zone after failing to deliver on that promise after the last election. (Steve Bruce/CBC)

"I stand here today disappointed that we haven't been able to deliver on that," said Sean Casey, the Liberal incumbent in the Charlottetown riding.  

"I've done my darndest. I've met with the ministers that have carriage of the file. I've met with the Prime Minister. "

Casey puts much of the blame on Egmont Liberal incumbent Bobby Morrissey — the one Liberal who backtracked on his pledge to return the Island to a single zone. 

Morrissey's riding is the only one that sits entirely within the P.E.I. zone. After he was elected, he argued returning the Island to a single zone — with a lower overall unemployment rate — would hurt his constituents and cost rural P.E.I. $8 million in EI benefits. 

Heading into this election, Morrissey remains against the return to one zone. 

'We gave our word'

"Political consensus would have been extremely helpful," said Casey. 

Charlottetown NDP candidate Joe Byrne says that if elected, he'll 'stand up and defend the rights of constituents' and return the Island to one EI zone. (Steve Bruce/CBC)

"If Bobby had maintained his original position, I'm not sure we'd be discussing this today ... We gave our word. We should honour it."

That explanation frustrates Charlottetown NDP candidate Joe Byrne. 

"Here we are again four years later, and again it's an election issue," said Byrne. "Why does Bobby Morrissey get to decide how much suffering people should do in Charlottetown? It's a crazy idea to think anybody in West Prince is going to feel better because people in Charlottetown are made worse off."

'Change it right away' 

Byrne is one of three candidates in the Charlottetown riding committing to return the Island to one EI zone if elected. 

Darcie Lanthier, centre, the Green Party's Charlottetown candidate, calls the two zone system 'bad policy' and a 'simple thing to fix.' (Steve Bruce/CBC)

Byrne, the Green party's Darcie Lanthier, and Christian Heritage candidate Fred MacLeod said they'll find a way to make it happen, even if it's from the opposition back benches. 

"What I would do? Change it right away," said Byrne. "Sometimes change has to come because an MP is going to stand up and defend the rights of constituents."

"It's hurting a lot of people, and it's a bad policy. P.E.I. is such a small place," said Lanthier. "Harper did it to reinforce Gail Shea. I don't know why it hasn't been undone. It seems like it was a simple thing to fix."

"We're too small, too close, too compact to be a two zone system," added MacLeod. "It's the same work area, the same workforce that we have that we share. So it should be the same benefits and length of benefits across the board."

'I'm one MP in 338'

But neither the Liberal's Casey nor Conservative candidate Robert Campbell will commit to the change. 

Fred MacLeod, the Christian Heritage Party candidate in Charlottetown, says P.E.I. is 'too small, too close, too compact' to have two EI zones. (Steve Bruce/CBC)

Both candidates said their parties have a realistic chance of forming government and they're not comfortable making a promise without an assurance from the party they'll deliver on it. Neither has that assurance. 

"On a personal note, I would love to see it changed," said Campbell. "But it has to be done by the Conservative Party. It has to be them that make the decision ... I would advocate for it. But I'm one MP in 338."

Casey points out that his government did create a program that gives an additional five weeks of EI benefits to seasonal workers in both Island zones. 

Charlottetown Conservative candidate Robert Campbell says while he would personally like to see P.E.I. moved back to a single EI zone, his party hasn't committed to it. (Steve Bruce/CBC)

A federal review of all employment insurance zones across the country is also underway. It's expected to be completed a year from now.  

"What I am committing to do, is everything within my power to ensure the review comes out with the result that we want," said Casey.  

"But I can't credibly make a promise after making it four years ago and not yet delivering. All I can promise is to do my best and that's what I'm going to do."

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