The plan to overhaul the Employment Insurance program proves the federal government is out of touch with Canada's regional realities, says Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Kathy Dunderdale.
In an interview Friday with CBC Power & Politics host Rosemary Barton, Dunderdale called the lack of consultation with provinces on the EI revamp "disturbing."
"There seems to be a real disconnect between what the federal government is trying to achieve and the reality of peoples' lives in rural parts of the country — particularly here in Newfoundland and Labrador," she said.
Under planned changes to the EI regime, recipients will be forced to broaden their job search and accept work with lower wages the longer and more frequently they claim EI benefits.
Dunderdale said those changes will have a direct and negative impact on the many seasonal workers in her province — most of them working in fisheries. With a half-million people spread out over a vast, coastal area, she says it just isn't feasible for people to pick up and move to another community to chase work.
"When the industry closes down because the season has closed, then there's not somewhere to travel to," she said.
Dunderdale also took issue with remarks by Public Works Minister Rona Ambrose, who referred to an online dating site when she tweeted the EI changes are "like 'eHarmony' for job seekers and employers: matching [Canadians] looking for work with available jobs, data, support."
"Such a statement offends me — truly it does," Dunderdale said. "All of us want to work towards the goals of having long-term, sustainable employment for our citizens that pays a living wage. But there are challenges, and you have to realize what people are living with every day, in their communities, in their homes, and the challenges that they have to face in terms of making the transition from part-time to full-time employment."
Premier wants meeting with Harper
Dunderdale said food production around the world is usually supported by governments, and that EI has become the de facto support program for Canada's fisheries sector.
While there can be a debate over whether that's the best way to support the industry, she called it "troublesome" that the program would be revamped before another support is introduced.
Many Newfoundlanders were "co-opted" out of high school in the 1970s and 1980s because there was a labour supply required in the fisheries. With the industry now in transition, an early retirement program for fishers in cooperation with the province is the best way to ease the "draw-down" of EI benefits.
Acknowledging the federal government has done "good things" that respond to the aspirations and needs of Newfoundlanders, Dunderdale also accused the federal government of not listening on key issues that are particularly sensitive to the province, such as search-and-rescue resource needs.
She has requested a meeting with Prime Minister Stephen Harper to detail her concerns.
"We expect our government to be responsible. They do have responsibilities to all of the people of this country of which we are a part. And whether we vote for you or you don't vote for you, you are the providers of a number of services and providers to the people of Newfoundland and Labrador," she said.
Reactions To EI Changes
A selection of quotes on the newly announced changes to the employment insurance program.<br><br> <em><strong>With files from CP and CBC.</strong></em><br><br> (CP/Alamy)
"New EI changes are like 'E-Harmony' for job seekers and employers: matching Cdns looking for work with available jobs, data, support." - Public Works Minister Rona Ambrose, on Twitter. (CP)
What we heard today is the minister scapegoating unemployed Canadians . . . that they are not trying hard enough to find work." - NDP Finance Critic Peggy Nash. (CP)
"While we're glad to see that the Conservatives have backed away from earlier draconian proposals floated by their most senior ministers, including the minister of Finance, we're concerned that the announced changes will force many Canadians to take low-skilled, low-paying jobs, jeopardize the economic security of communities that are reliant on seasonal industries, and that the appeals process will now be handled by a handful of political appointees based in Ottawa instead of by regional experts that are familiar with local circumstances." - Rodger Cuzner, Liberal Human Resources critic. (CP)
"The main beneficiaries of the current employment insurance rules are not the workers that Conservative rhetoric seeks to demonize, suggesting that something is wrong with 'repeat users', but rather the employers in forestry, fisheries and tourism industries." - Green Party Leader Elizabeth May. (CP)
"We certainly need more information than we have. People having to search for work and having to go within an hour's radius of where they live and so on, on the face of it, that doesn't sound all that onerous or difficult. But that depends on what you work at. In a province where we don't have public transportation, for example, if you're working for a minimum wage job and you have to travel 40 miles away, which is within the hour radius, to work at another $10-an-hour job, is that sensible? Is that prudent?" - Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Kathy Dunderdale, scrumming with reporters at the provincial legislature in St. John's. (CP)
"I'm disappointed that the federal government failed to consult with the provinces and territories on an issue that will impact workers and their families across the country... Under the new rules, some EI recipients that are eligible now will become less eligible in the future. The changes will also make it difficult for some employers to stay in business, including operators in the farming industry. It is already a challenge to keep rural communities strong. Economic changes are forcing people to leave their homes and communities to find work, and in many cases, once they leave, they're gone for good." - Nova Scotia Premier Darrell Dexter, in a statement provided to CBC News. (CP)
"When it comes to the EI system in Canada, a one-size-fits-all does not work... On P.E.I., we are very fortunate that our three largest industries are fisheries, agriculture and tourism: all three industries that are seasonal in nature. We are different than downtown Toronto and we are different than downtown Calgary. We know the federal government is looking at making changes that would be a hindrance to our industries that rely on workers coming back year after year that have expertise in these areas, that they need to come back and help to get their products to market." - Prince Edward Island Premier Robert Ghiz, speaking in the legislative assembly in Charlottetown. (CP)
Gregory Thomas, Canadian Taxpayers Federation
"The new EI rules strike a blow for hard-working Canadian taxpayers, against habitual pogey collectors who have been enjoying part-time work with other people's money for far too long... If you've been collecting pogey more than one year in the past five, maybe it's time to get some training, find a different line of work, or move to where the jobs are... Let's remember, these so-called benefits are nothing more than other people's EI tax money - over $20 billion dollars - forcibly taken from them... Every Canadian should be entitled to keep the money they work for, not have government tax it away and give it out in an attempt to buy votes." - Gregory Thomas, Canadian Taxpayers Federation, from a press release. (Handout)
Ken Georgetti, Canadian Labour Congress
"What she should do as a responsible cabinet minister is take these changes out of that budget bill and start to talk to the people who know the system better than she... Instead she comes up with more fatuous suggestions about situations that really don't exist out there... This is ridiculous economic policy. It's short-term thinking and it's political football with the people that are the most vulnerable in our society. People who are unemployed don't want to be unemployed. This government would have you believe that they're sitting there and surfing off the shores of Nova Scotia or skiing in the mountains of British Columbia... it's not true." - Ken Georgetti, Canadian Labour Congress, speaking on CBC News Network. (Handout)
Catherine Swift, Canadian Federation of Independent Business
"We believe the changes to defining suitable employment, based on how frequently EI is claimed, will help to remove disincentives to work and hopefully make it easier for small firms to find the people they need... Under the current system, 22 per cent of small business owners said they had difficulty hiring as potential workers would rather stay on EI benefits and another 16 per cent said they had been asked by an employee to lay them off to allow them to collect benefits... Employers agree that EI should be there for those who lose a job through no fault of their own, but do not accept that the system should be used as some form of paid vacation or ongoing lifestyle for those who choose not to work." - Catherine Swift, Canadian Federation of Independent Business, quoted in a news release. (Handout