The human cost of employment insurance reforms

Much has been said about the Harper government’s senseless employment insurance reforms. Their negative impact on the economy of several regions has been criticized by experts and businesspeople. However, little has been said about the devastating impact of the EI reforms on the lives of thousands of honest workers.

I’ve lost count of the letters to that effect received by my office. People are worried and wonder why the government is trying to punish them. I’m thinking about seasonal workers in particular: roofers, snow removers, school bus drivers and teachers who don’t have steady positions, for example. Will these people be forced to move or accept jobs in other fields in order to survive? Given these prospects, I can understand why they and their families are worried.

The Conservative government’s devastating reforms are the latest in a long list of setbacks for Canada’s middle class. At present, about four out of ten workers qualify for EI benefits in the event of job loss. That means that the majority of contributors can’t collect benefits when they need them. That’s unacceptable.

Another disastrous aspect of the Conservative reforms is the replacement of boards of referees and umpires by the Social Security Tribunal.

Eliminating boards of referees means that workers no longer have access to a fast, efficient, user-friendly, fair and tripartite appeal system (boards were made up of a chairperson, an employer representative and an employee representative). Individuals could also choose to be represented by legal advisors from advocacy groups.

The board of referee decision could be appealed to the umpire.

On April 1, 2013, these two bodies will be abolished and replaced by the Social Security Tribunal. This will mark the end of the tripartite system; the fate of unemployed workers will be in the hands of a single person appointed by Cabinet. Moreover, before appealing to the Tribunal, unemployed workers will have to have their case reviewed. That step was not obligatory in the past. Few individuals resorted to the review option because decisions were rarely reversed and it meant having to wait even longer to collect benefits.

The situation is so absurd that several long-time Conservatives have spoken out against the reforms. Three former candidates chosen by Stephen Harper—Bertin Denis, Allen Cormier and Michel-Éric Castonguay—have publicly stated that they are ashamed of their party and can’t understand this harassment. All three are from Eastern Quebec. Charles-Eugène Marin, one-time Conservative MP for the former riding of Gaspé from 1984 to 1993 concurs. Conservatives are now speaking out against their own party—that’s how botched there reforms are!

And yet, Minister Finley, who is responsible for this fiasco, has nothing but evasive answers for concerned workers. In her eyes, unemployed workers are the “bad guys”. She has consistently refused to admit that the reforms are harmful, insulting and illogical. She doesn’t seem to understand that it is employers and workers who are contributing to the EI program, not the government. Employment insurance is neither a gift nor a privilege; it is a protective measure.

Given the Conservative government’s intractability, we have no choice but to protest. I urge my fellow citizens to send me their comments, either below this article, or by email at quacha@parl.gc.ca. I will make sure that they reach the government, so that the Conservatives hear our message, loud and clear.

I urge those seeking greater justice and fairness from the EI program to join the national protest being organized by the FTQ on Saturday, February 23. Ten cities will be participating: Montreal, Quebec City, Trois-Rivières, Ottawa (Parliament Hill), Rouyn, Baie‑Comeau, Sherbrooke, Sept-Îles, Chicoutimi and Rimouski. The protests will begin at 11 a.m. In Montreal, protesters will march from 200 René Lévesque Blvd. West to the Radio-Canada building.

Let’s fight against these senseless employment insurance reforms; the wellbeing of our workers and our communities depends on it.