May 19, 2012 – In his latest Ottawa Citizen column, MLI’s Brian Lee Crowley uncovers the shameful damage EI has caused in many communities, particularly throughout eastern Quebec and Atlantic Canada. According to Crowley, we need EI reform. The column was also reprinted in the Calgary Herald and the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal. The full column below:
By Brian Lee Crowley, Ottawa Citizen, May 19, 2012
Critics of the federal government’s plan to press workers on employment insurance (EI) to accept available work remind me of Captain Renault walking into Rick’s Nightclub in the film Casablanca. They are shocked — shocked, mind you — to discover that there is gambling going on in this establishment.
Renault knew perfectly well what was going on in Rick’s; he was a regular there himself. But it became a convenient excuse when he needed to close the place down.
Where EI is concerned, the critics are shocked at the suggestion we might need EI reform because after all, highly qualified engineers shouldn’t be forced to sling fries at minimum wage. True. But it is also a herring of the deepest red hue. We need EI reform to end the shameful damage it has caused in many communities, particularly throughout eastern Quebec and Atlantic Canada.
Having lived in that region for 20 years, I saw the damage close up. This is what it looks like on the ground: A friend of mine moved from B.C. to Lunenburg and got a job in a restaurant. She was stunned to learn the restaurant closed outside the tourist season. The owner said it wasn’t because she didn’t want to stay open, but she couldn’t get people to work in the winter once everyone was “stamped up” (i.e. qualified for the maximum annual EI benefits). My friend said she was willing to work all year long. Once word of this got out, she got calls from employers all over town fighting to hire someone willing to work over the winter.
One year in Petit-Rocher, New Brunswick, the fish plant closed for lack of fish; the locals demanded a provincial make-work project until they could get fully stamped up. When the fish plant in the next town offered them work, and a free shuttle bus service to get there, the workers angrily refused — until the province told them if there was work available there would be no make-work.
The Ocean Choice fish plant in Souris, PEI, has to bring in temporary workers from as far away as Russia and Ukraine in a province with one of the highest unemployment rates in the country. Immigration Minister Jason Kenney finds this inexplicable. Look no further than EI for that explanation.
My wife and I owned a restaurant in Halifax and had firsthand experience of the system. People would leave us résumés and then be genuinely puzzled when we phoned to offer them work. We apparently hadn’t understood the blindingly obvious: those résumés were strictly for the benefit of the EI administrators. Don’t try to blow the whistle on these cheats to EI, though; the people who administer it in Atlantic Canada long ago became complicit in the plundering of the system. The claimant is king and the local politicians who have fought for ever richer benefits for their constituents like it just fine that way.
We had applicants who would only agree to be hired if we would promise to lay them off when they had qualified for EI. They liked to do their crafts during the autumn and sell them (under the table for cash) at the Christmas craft fairs. Now you know why there are so many bad crafts in Atlantic Canada: it is your tax dollars at work.
Throughout the region, many employers keep people on just long enough to get them stamped up, and then lay them off to cycle more people through the system. The social pressure to do so is enormous, because a few months’ work guarantees each person a year’s income.
In all these cases it is not lack of work that has sidelined these workers, but rather a settled habit of expecting to be paid not to work for part of the year.
The federal government has tried on occasion to place repeat EI recipients in full-time work, subsidizing their wages to ensure no loss of income. Those experiments failed because no one would participate. The reason? Many do not consider themselves “unemployed” when they’re on EI. Benefits are just part of their annual income.
Labour shortages don’t just exist in Alberta and Saskatchewan. They also exist in towns and cities down east, where they coexist with unemployment created by a dysfunctional EI system.
EI pays thousands to stay in seasonal work with little future, and to spend many months of the year idle while Ottawa must bring in temporary foreign workers.
Sure, we have to be vigilant that Ottawa doesn’t go overboard, forcing people who are rarely unemployed to take jobs for which they are patently unsuited. But that improbable prospect should not prevent us from clamouring for a system that does not trap entire communities on the EI-and-seasonal-work treadmill. The status quo, not the proposed reform, should shock the conscience of the nation.
Brian Lee Crowley is managing director of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, an independent non-partisan public policy think tank in Ottawa: macdonaldlaurier.ca.