This time last year, Craig Carter-Edwards was working for a government relations firm and had just bought a North York home with his wife, a teacher. But he was soon let go from his job and, when his severance pay ran out, he started collecting EI. He was on it for about a month before he took a job with Ontario's Liberal Party in the runup to last fall's election.
He's now back on EI since his job with the Liberals finished at the end of last year. "It's not something where I say, 'Hey, I get to milk the system,'" he said. "I hate it … this is not something that I enjoy, I don't think many people do."
He said he sees EI as a temporary way to keep his family, including a four-year-old son, afloat until he can find a new job. Because he doesn't see a future for himself on EI, he said he's more concerned about what the changes will do to Canadian society than whether he'll be able to keep collecting the payments himself.
The government's changes to the system will probably make him and other recipients more "cutthroat" when they pursue jobs and go on interviews, Mr. Carter-Edwards said. "Maybe this will provide a little bit more edge, so I'm slightly hungrier when I go out," said Mr. Carter-Edwards, who has an honours bachelor of arts from Trent University and is now pursuing a social entrepreneurial type of government relations.
"It's not the kind of environment you want to be fostering." It will allow employers to take advantage of EI recipients by offering wages that they'll be forced to take under the new framework, he said. Plus, he said, He's worried that, with the changes to the system, people will increasingly be forced to take work less suited to their skill sets. "People are going to be told, 'Guess what, you're being shortchanged … you either get a job in factory or driving a taxi or flipping burgers or whatever … or you obviously don't care about working,'" he said. "It's not that easy."
– Carys Mills, Ottawa
Rodrigue Martin has worked at Camp Beausejour for the past decade. For five or six months a year, he is employed by his sister to do maintenance work at the Shediac, N.B., campground. The rest of the time, the 67-year-old said he collects EI on top of his old-age pension.
He owns a car but says commuting an hour each way for work, likely to Moncton or nearby, isn't feasible. "It's going to take half a tank, it's going to cost around $60, so I don't make any money."
His 1995 Volvo likely isn't up to a two-hour commute everyday in the winter, he said, and if he loses EI he'll probably have to sell the car anyway.
Mr. Martin said he's looked for winter work before, including applying for restaurant jobs, but there simply isn't enough work to go around in the off-season. "It's nonsense," he said of the new changes. "I don't know how we're supposed to find a job around here when it's only fisheries and tourism."
So far, he doesn't know which one of the new three categories he would fit into, Mr. Martin said, so it's difficult for him to understand what situation he'll be in at the end of the summer when his work at the camp ends for the season.
The government is going too far, he said, and could face intense backlash from the Atlantic provinces because of how much seasonal work there is. "It's frustrating, it makes people mad and after a certain point, they're going to react."
– Carys Mills, Ottawa
For 41 years, Allan Moulton worked at the Ocean Choice International fish plant in Marystown, Nfld. It was full-time work, until the plant shut its doors last December, putting 250 workers – close to half older than 60 – out of work.
The company had been losing money, according to a recent audit. But Mr. Moulton, 57, who was the Fish, Food and Allied Workers plant president, says the company wanted employees to work for 18 weeks and then go on EI – but the workers refused and the plant was closed.
He said plant owners wanted to ship most of the fish out of the province to be processed more cheaply elsewhere. "We took a stand to try to keep more fish here to try to work longer and not have to rely on EI," Mr. Moulton said. "And for taking that stand workers lost their jobs altogether. So that's the kind of stuff the federal government needs to be looking at, the kind of stuff that is really going on."
About the government's changes, Mr. Moulton says that no one wants to collect EI and end up with 55 per cent of their earnings. And those benefits would decrease even more under the new system. "You are really banging seasonal workers and their families where there's no justification for doing it," he said. "They simply don't understand that there's not a whole lot of work in these communities and some of these place are much longer than an hour's drive to get to."
He had to collect EI for 10 or 12 weeks last year when plant reduced its hours. He's been able to find 16 weeks of work with the union for now but doesn't know what the future holds.
"I don't know what will be available after that but I'll have to take that now and hope for the best going forward," he says, adding that seasonal industries "still make a tremendous contribution to the economy of the country."
– Jane Taber, Halifax