Posted: Wednesday, 31 October 2012
As posted on www.thestar.com on October 31, 2012
The federal government introduced a 425-page bill in the spring to ram changes through Parliament on everything from employment insurance to the age of retirement. The government refused all pleas to split the bill up so that each resulting piece of legislation could be debated adequately. Now the finance minister is at it again, introducing another monster 400-page bill related to the budget.
There is a pattern here of acting in haste, refusing to consult stakeholders, and ignoring all pleas to allow legislation to be debated sufficiently by parliamentarians. This is the wrong way to create public policy. We urge the government to change its ways and to allow this essential debate to take place.
Many of the changes foisted upon us in that blizzard of paper last spring were fundamentally wrong and unfair to working people. We fear that the new bill will do even more damage.
Let’s look at some of what has happened so far. Changes made to employment insurance regulations will force EI claimants to move out of their local communities to take temporary jobs. Forcing workers to take the first available job is not good labour market policy because a period of job search allows for a better fit between unemployed workers and job vacancies across the country. An unemployed welder in Moncton may need time to find a suitable job in Western Canada. The whole premise behind our EI program is that workers, who paid into the insurance plan, will receive income support at a time when they lose jobs and search for new ones. The recent changes are not being faithful to that social contract.
Diane Finley, the minister-in-charge, now has the power to set regulations defining what constitutes “suitable employment” for EI claimants, and to define “reasonable and customary efforts” to find work. Claimants can be cut off benefits if they decline “suitable employment” and do not make “reasonable and customary efforts” to find work. The underlying message here is that EI claimants are lazy and do not want to work. In fact, Statistics Canada reports there are 5.3 unemployed workers for every reported job vacancy in Canada.
The government also used last spring’s budget to make changes to a successful pilot project called Working While on Claim. The pilot, introduced in 2008 and extended in 2010, provided an incentive for unemployed workers to take available temporary or part-time jobs while they looked for new full-time work. The pilot project allowed EI claimants to earn the greater of $75 or 40 per cent of weekly benefits without having it clawed back. An evaluation of the project in 2010 showed that its benefit was greatest for women, single parents, part-time and temporary workers.
The minister made changes in spring 2012 that she said would allow claimants to keep more of what they earn, but in reality those amendments leave low-paid workers worse off than they were under the old rules. The CLC raised this concern, among others, with the minister during the debate on changes to EI. We made specific and practical proposals that we thought would work but these were not heeded.
The minister’s promises have not fooled workers and there has been a backlash. Now, bowing to public pressure, the government has announced amendments to Working While on Claim, allowing claimants a choice between the old pilot and the new one. But these changes are only temporary and are not a real solution for the workers involved. These are the perils of creating labour market policy on the fly.
The spring 2012 budget also made changes to the appeal system for EI claims which will be detrimental to unemployed workers. We fear this is the next point at which the EI program will unravel. The government will get rid of more than 700 part-time referees and umpires who handled on average over 26,000 EI appeals. These referees and umpires will be replaced with just 75 people to handle not only EI appeals but also disability appeals under the Canada Pension Plan.
As a result, many unemployed Canadians will fall through the cracks. The part-time referees and umpires have shown themselves to be knowledgeable about local labour conditions as well as the EI legislation and regulations and they delivered timely decisions. Many claims that were initially denied are upheld, underlining the importance of the process of getting a fair hearing. We believe that the new plan will not work.
The government has, so far, ignored all calls to proceed more deliberately and to consult more widely but it is never too late. They can, if they choose, talk with stakeholders and consider carefully how to proceed on fair and informed labour market policies.
Ken Georgetti is president of the Canadian Labour Congress.