Stephen Harper’s new employment insurance rules whack Ontario hard
TheStar.com – news/Canada – Ottawa isn’t taking aim at just Atlantic fishermen with its employment insurance reforms. The jobless of all sorts are under the gun.
Nov 01 2013, By: Thomas Walkom, National Affairs
When Stephen Harper’s government announced last year that it was tightening the rules for employment insurance, the move seemed to be aimed at seasonal workers — particularly Atlantic fishermen.
Seasonal benefits have long been a controversial part of EI. The rap against Atlantic fishermen (not entirely justified) is that many work for only a few weeks each season and then collect pogey for the rest of the year.
Certainly, the four Atlantic premiers argued that Finance Minister Jim Flaherty’s reforms were targeting their region.
All four, including the Conservative premiers of Newfoundland and New Brunswick, asked Ottawa to suspend the reforms, which came into effect this January.
In Quebec too, the move was seen as an attack on seasonal workers, prompting the province’s Parti Quebecois government to set up its own panel of inquiry.
Yet the federal government’s own figures show reforms are aimed at more than Atlantic fishermen or Quebec lumberjacks.
Indeed, in Ontario, the brunt of the reforms will be borne not by seasonal workers at all, but by regular, full-time employees unlucky enough to have lost their jobs.
That’s because Ottawa has quietly changed the definition of who is eligible for what.
So-called long-tenured workers — those who have paid into the program for at least seven of the last ten years but haven’t used it much — will be treated best.
Frequent claimants, such as seasonal workers, will be treated worst.
But the bulk of claimants, all of whom are now defined by the government as “occasional” will be treated almost as badly as seasonal workers.
In Ontario, according to federal figures, some 58 per cent of EI claimants (excluding those receiving special benefits such as maternity payments) are deemed occasional.
Under Flaherty’s reforms, these occasional claimants will be expected to take any job available if, after 18 weeks, they haven’t been able to find work for which they are qualified.
At that point, they will also be expected to take a wage cut of up to 30 per cent.
Like all claimants, they may be expected to commute up to an hour or more each way for work.
In practical terms, this could mean that a well-paid factory worker who finds herself unemployed after five years on the job will, after 18 weeks of fruitless search, lose her benefits if she doesn’t take a low-wage position delivering pizza some 60 kilometres from home.
The labour-backed Good Jobs For All coalition points out that when both targeted groups — frequent claimants and occasional claimants — are added together, Ontario gets whacked harder than all four Atlantic provinces combined.
The most recent federal figures show that an estimated 289,000 Ontario jobless from these two categories will be hurt by the new reforms, compared to 351,000 in Quebec and just 199,000 in the Atlantic region.
If Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne is concerned about this, she hasn’t let on.
The great irony is that these days hardly any jobless qualify for EI to begin with.
Latest figures from Statistics Canada show that only 37.6 per cent of unemployed Canadians qualified for employment insurance in August.
In part, that’s because the nature of work is changing. More people have the kind of jobs (such as self-employment) that EI was never designed to address.
But as a 1998 federal study found, about half of the gap is the result of earlier employment insurance reforms put in place by Jean Chretien’s Liberal government.
Now the Harper Tories are making their own effort to eliminate what is left of EI.
The strategy is quite simple: Destroy whatever political support exists for employment insurance by making the benefit almost impossible to collect.
The aim is equally straightforward: Crush any social program that interferes with the downward pressure on wages.
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