EI reform a disaster for employers and workers alike

By Anne Minh-Thu Quach

The Conservative government’s EI reform has caused hardship for many people. Many of the planned changes will force workers to take a step backward, and I along with my NDP colleagues and many community organizations have criticized the initiative.

The Conservatives like to say we are getting upset over nothing, and their changes will not restrict access to EI benefits. Now that the changes have been in effect for almost six months, what is the reality for unemployed workers? 

Only 36% of unemployed workers are now eligible for EI benefits. That’s fewer than four people in ten! Is that really an effective insurance system? Definitely not. 

On a recent visit to Beauharnois–Salaberry, Quebec’s Commission nationale d'examen sur la réforme de l'assurance-emploi heard from many local stakeholders. The NDP also presented a brief to the Commission. I attended the sessions to hear what the people of Beauharnois–Salaberry had to say. 

Many union representatives sounded the alarm, especially about the elimination of the Board of Referees, which gave recipients access to the employer’s written statement to prepare their appeal. Thérèse Fortier of the Comité chômage said that the new Social Security Tribunal puts an end to this practice. Talks are now held over the telephone or by video conference. How can Tribunal members determine credibility if they cannot see a worker’s reactions or ask direct questions about the worker’s case? 

To make matters worse, the Conservatives have appointed their friends to the new Tribunal. The Harper government has selected former Conservative candidates and Conservative Party contributors, removing all traces of credibility from the appeal process and seemingly stacking it against unemployed workers. 

The directors of the community development corporations of Haut-St-Laurent and Beauharnois–Salaberry said they have been receiving a huge number of CVs since the EI reform, because people must extend their search to prove they are actively seeking work. This places an unnecessary burden on employers. And to think that the Conservatives pompously launched the Red Tape Reduction Commission in 2011 to make things easier for businesses. Now that’s ironic!

In addition, since there are often temporary layoffs in the community sector during the summer, employers lose competent employees and must invest time and money in training new people, most of whom work in fields that depend on community support (mental health, family violence, homelessness, social housing and food security).

The Comité chômage noted another problem: a woman saw her EI benefits cut because she had sent out “only” two CVs to human resources centres (Caisses Desjardins and CSSS). She could not send out more because these are hubs that distribute her CV through their networks. This is the new hiring process in many sectors, but the Conservatives do not take it into account when evaluating recipients’ cases.

Lastly, government officials must look at recipients’ areas of expertise over a five-year period. The situation gets ridiculous for contract workers or people with little job security, like new teachers. Some teachers who worked as hair stylists or servers while going to school find that they have to circulate their CVs to employers in these fields if they want to receive EI benefits.

Let’s not forget that the reform puts downward pressure on wages because unemployed workers are forced to accept jobs at 70% of their salary. As a result, their spending power decreases and they have trouble making ends meet.

The EI initiative does not respond to conditions in the regions or the current labour market. How much hardship do the Conservatives expect people to endure before they rethink their reform?