Marlene Giersdorf is furious. The 30-year-old single mother had her employment insurance benefits cut off because of harsh new regulations that came into effect this year. Now she is staging a one-woman protest outside the federal employment office in Montague, PEI. She has a homemade sign that says, “YOU are next.”
Ms. Giersdorf is a test case for the new EI rules, which are more aggressive about getting frequent users back to work. Some claimants will now be obliged to apply for jobs that may pay only 70 or 80 per cent of what they made before and to commute as far as an hour to work. Ms. Giersdorf, who has a nine-year-old son, was cut off because she refused to look for work in Charlottetown, which is a 35-minute drive or so from Montague.
Here in Toronto, where a 35-minute commute is just a warm-up, I suspect Ms. Giersdorf’s plight wouldn’t draw a lot of sympathy. She’s been on EI a few times before – when she “needed a break,” she told the National Post. Employment opportunities in Montague (population: 5,134) are limited at the best of times. She says she quit her previous job because of “stress” (she worked a 60-hour week on the night shift at a nursing home). She insists she can’t work in Charlottetown because she doesn’t own a car and can’t afford to buy one. “Are they going to pay my taxi fare?” she wailed. (Actually, there’s a $10 shuttle bus, but that hasn’t come up.)
But in PEI, where employment insurance is embedded in the way of life, a lot of people are on her side. “How many others could end up having to fight for their benefits?” editorialized Charlottetown’s The Guardian newspaper. It worries that the tougher rules will force people to work for less money, take jobs for which they’re not suited and sometimes travel long distances to work. To which the more callous among us are likely to respond: So what?
Employment insurance is supposed to be a short-term cushion for when times are tough or the labour market changes. But in Canada it has become a giant transfer of funds from high-employment regions to those where seasonal employment is common. Newfoundland and Labrador, PEI and New Brunswick are the biggest per-capita users of EI. “We have too many people who only entered the labour market to get EI benefits,” Bernard Valcourt, a federal cabinet minister from New Brunswick, told the Post. “It’s become a way of life.” In Prince Edward Island, where the total population is a quarter that of Scarborough’s, 26 per cent of the work force collects EI for part of every year, and EI benefits account for 9 per cent of labour income. (The national figure is 2.4 per cent.) People can qualify for 23 weeks of benefits with just 12 weeks of work – far more generous provisions than in Toronto.
Meanwhile, employers can’t find skilled help because the math and literacy skills of roughly 40 per cent of the population are below high-school graduate level.
The worst part of EI is that it traps people and discourages them from moving to areas where their futures (and their kids’ futures) might be better. As Janice MacKinnon, who was a finance minister in Saskatchewan’s NDP government, wrote, the system “rests on the assumption that it is in the best interests of individuals and the economy or unemployed Canadians to remain within their region, hoping jobs will come to them.”
Ms. Giersdorf has done pretty well by the system, but now that the rules have tightened up a bit, she feels betrayed. “I paid EI benefits with every job I worked and now I can’t get any help,” she sobbed to The Guardian. But more EI isn’t what she needs. What she needs is to get out of the dependency trap.
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