K'jipuktuk (Halifax) — Julia Cottingham was visibly shaken when she showed up to a workers' town hall Feb. 26, at the Holiday Inn in Dartmouth to discuss changes to Employment Insurance.
The 52-year-old office assistant with the Halifax Regional School Board lost her benefits because she wasn't actively looking for work during the summer months when she is laid off. Now she's worried she'll have to take lower-paying work at the risk of not being able to return to the job she loves.
Adding to the complications of the newly-implemented reformations to Employment Insurance, Canadians across the country are receiving calls and house visits from Human Resources investigators, ostensibly in an attempt to ferret out fraudulent EI claims. Forty investigators across Nova Scotia are tasked with recovering $19.4 million in the province over the next year.
Letters-to-the-editor poured into the Chronicle Herald when it was revealed that senior executive staff overseeing the management of investigators or “integrity officers” receive bonuses when performance targets in recuperating claims are met, though Human Resources Minister Diane Finley has denied there are individual quotas.
Public sector union representatives who have decried home visits say there was no consultation on the scope of the EI changes and the claims review. Cottingham claims that in her 15 years working for school boards in Ottawa and Halifax, Human Resources had always green-lighted her benefits claims.
Successive governments have scaled back benefits payments since the 1990s, when a $57-billion surplus was transferred from the employer- and worker-funded program to general revenue and never recovered. Now, in what many are calling a misappropriation of public moneys that might otherwise have continued to fund a financially sound government program, there are only more cuts to EI.
Kyle Buott, president of the Halifax-Dartmouth District Labour Council, pointed out that surplus money should be reinvested in areas like job training and education. He called on those gathered to write their MPs and rally in the streets, as workers have in New Brunswick and Quebec, and occupy public offices if necessary, recalling that EI was won through workers' actions demanding real relief and real jobs during the Great Depression.
Speakers at Tuesday's forum, including Nova Scotia Federation of Labour president Rick Clarke, noted that the recent reforms are a pointed attack at Atlantic Canada, where there are 10 unemployed workers for every available job. Training and apprenticeship investments undertaken in the Maritimes are lost to Western Canada, as skilled workers leave the region in search of employment.
The EI system does pay out longer to workers in high-unemployment regions like Nova Scotia but instead of addressing work or skill shortages, the government's reforms will depress wages, according to the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. Frequent claimants are asked to look for and accept work for up to 30 per cent less than their previous wages.
The new regulations have also eliminated the appeals process in which a board of referees heard cases in person. Under the new system, 76 Conservative-appointed lawyers will review appeals in Ottawa and telephone applicants at their own discretion.
David Ladouceur, a 49-year-old Halifax shipyard iron worker, came to the town hall because he was concerned about his son who is also pursuing the trade.
For him, EI reform was nothing less than a threat to his own way of life.
“We're losing a social safety net that allows people to stay with their trade even if there's no work available,” he said. “Are we all going to have to go on welfare if we're unwilling to accept work outside of our trade, pays less, and is away from our homes?”