Save EI system

WindsorStar.com – news
Jun 13, 2013.   Sari Conter and Richard Kirkham

The federal government has implemented dramatic changes to the Employment Insurance program.

The local Board of Referees staffed by local labour, government appointments and employers representatives has been abolished. In its place, the Social Security Tribunal, which came into operation on 1 April, will handle appeals regarding EI, the Canada Pension Plan and Old Age Security decisions.

The amalgamation of these administrative bodies is supposed to create a streamlined, agile, appeal process by creating a single point of contact for submitting appeals.

While the new system was introduced to make the appeal process simpler, it remains to be seen how a staff reduced from 1,000 to roughly 74 can be more efficient, especially when there nearly 10,000 appeals outstanding in the system.

Under the former system, the Board of Referees was able to hear oral testimony of applicants and could respond in ways that were sensitive to the local economic context.

The worker could attend the hearing and explain what happened to them in their own words. Now, the opportunity for an oral hearing will be restricted and fewer in person hearings will take place.

Oral hearings are particularly important in cases where creditability is the key issue. The new system will emphasize written appeals, which will limit the ability of people to communicate their case. Delays in addressing appeals will be a problem and laid off workers will be forced to seek out social assistance. As a result, there will be greater financial demands on our publicly funded social assistance system.

These changes, coupled with the eligibility changes, will make access to employment insurance benefits more difficult.

Claimants are now grouped into three classifications: long-tenured workers, occasional claimants and frequent claimants.

Frequent claimants are most at risk under these new changes based on policy directives which has expanded the definition of “suitable employment.” Claimants under this classification must accept positions outside of their field.

They may also be forced to accept positions that pay 70 per cent of their previous wage and are located up to 100 km from home. This will have a greater impact on women. Family obligations and hours of work will rarely be considered to be a persuasive reason to refuse work. The new policy directives will encourage women to travel away from their homes, forcing them to secure more costly childcare.

In communities like Windsor which have had double-digit unemployment, the issue is job shortages not inadequate job searches. These classifications ignore the reality that low paid, temporary work is often the only opportunity for employment. The frequent layoffs reflect the nature of the employment, not necessarily the skill of the worker.

Protests in Quebec and the Maritimes have occurred because the workers recognize that these changes are undermining the access and benefit of employment insurance system.

It is important for the government to respect and facilitate access to benefits which are funded by workers and employers to provide assistance to workers when there is an interruption in employment.

It would be more helpful if the government concentrated its efforts in addressing the unemployment problem instead of dismantling the unemployment support system.

Sari Conter and Richard

Kirkham are law students working at Legal Assistance of Windsor.

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