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Politics Ottawa reviews boundaries that set how workers in different areas qualify for EI

Changes to the 64 existing regions would send ripples through the country as some workers benefit while others find themselves with tougher hurdles to clear to get benefits.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

A federal department is reconsidering the boundaries that determine how workers in different areas qualify for employment insurance.

Changes to the 64 EI regions, as they’re known, would send political ripples through the country as some workers benefit while others find themselves with tougher hurdles to clear to get benefits.

Documents obtained by the Canadian Press under the access-to-information law show how fraught the process can be, noting that complaints haven’t subsided since the last change five years ago.

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Employment and Social Development Canada is working on a fast-tracked review of the current boundaries that help decide the number of hours workers need to put in to qualify for EI benefits and how much they can receive depending on where they live.

In general, the idea is to make benefits more generous in parts of the country where it’s harder to get work, though a quirk of the system is that it’s based on residency, not where jobs are. Two people who get laid off from the same company at the same time could have different benefit entitlements because they live on opposite sides of an EI-region boundary.

How the department determines where to draw the lines separating EI zones will be different from previous reviews, with the internal documents detailing a plan to emphasize some factors over others, including putting less reliance on unemployment rates.

If all goes according to plan, the department anticipates making recommendations by September, 2020 – one year after this fall’s federal election.

“Changes in boundaries need to be made in a very thoughtful manner because any change in boundaries will involve losers and winners,” Social Development Minister Jean-Yves Duclos, who oversees the EI system, said in a recent interview.

Mr. Duclos said the objective needs to be making the EI system better and not about picking “who wins and who loses. That would be a political objective.”

Where the lines go can make a big difference in local politics. Alberta has zones centred on Edmonton and Calgary that include some suburban and surrounding rural areas but not others. After oil prices crashed, the Edmonton region was at first excluded from a 2016 boost to EI benefits, leading to complaints from people who worked in the oil patch but had permanent addresses in the city.

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The 2014 review split PEI into two EI zones with boundary lines drawn in a way that benefited the lone Conservative riding in the province: The entirety of the riding of Egmont, covering the western end of the Island, fell into an EI zone where workers needed fewer hours of work to qualify for benefits.

Conservative cabinet minister Gail Shea nevertheless fell to a Liberal challenger the next year. Changing the boundaries so PEI is again one region – as the Liberals once pledged to do – could be problematic for rookie Liberal MP Bobby Morrissey, who holds the Egmont seat, where residents would suddenly lose their advantage.

“It’s extremely unfair, but the dilemma – and I can understand this from my colleague Bobby Morrissey’s point of view – is if you go to one system, then there will be a loss to PEI,” said Wayne Easter, a long-time Island Liberal MP. His riding of Malpeque is partly in the EI zone with more generous benefits, partly in the zone centred on Charlottetown that has less generous benefits.

Any time he goes to an event, people in his own party like to point out the Liberals committed to reverse the changes and tell him that if “it isn’t changed, I’m not going to be able to support you.”

Federal officials, Mr. Easter said, must ensure there is a “better understanding of how and why” any changes are made.

The last two-year review wrapped in 2018 without any changes, and provided a set of lessons the department plans to apply this time around. A presentation to the department’s top officials noted the unemployment rate should be considered separately from other factors when deciding the borders of an EI region.

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The documents say that other labour-market factors — such as the kinds of industries, local demographics and the number of seasonal jobs — would provide a better understanding of the differences between neighbouring regions with similar unemployment rates.

Officials discussed using unemployment rates in the review by looking at long-term trends rather than at a single point in time.

The department said the current review started in October, 2018, but there is no requirement at the end for the Canada Employment Insurance Commission, which is responsible for the boundary review, to make any changes.

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