Federal minister talks EI reform

Ashley Thompson
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Seasonal workers may want to start updating their resumes.

If Human Resources and Skill Development Minster Diane Finley’s visit to J.W. Mason and Sons Ltd.’s Windsor Back Road headquarters is proof of anything, it’s an indication the federal government is forging ahead with plans to revise the Employment Insurance program – and Hants County workers won’t be immune from whatever those changes may be.

In a media scrum at the busy apple packing facility, Finley told reporters the purpose of the EI reform is to get skilled seasonal workers who would otherwise be drawing EI in the off season to fill job vacancies in their local areas instead.

“They need to be looking and, if there is an appropriate job for them, then they will be expected to take it. But, it is going to depend on individual circumstances and also the local labour market conditions,” she said, during a mid-afternoon visit, June 26.

Finley stressed that “common sense” will be used to determine if a job is “appropriate” for an EI recipient, and no one will be expected to pack up and move for work.

“We’re certainly not going to force someone to take a minimum wage job an hour away and expect them to pay for child care for two at the same time. That just doesn’t make sense, so that wouldn’t be considered appropriate.”

Critics of the looming changes claim the feds cracking down on the release of EI benefits will push seasonal workers to accept jobs they don’t want, for lower wages than they would typically receive, while leaving seasonal employers with the arduous task of retraining a larger portion of their labour force at the start of a new work term.

“There are some people who are representing some of these changes as Draconian and threatening when, in fact, it’s just the opposite,” Finley said.

“These are opportunities to help connect people with jobs better than what’s been done before. We’re removing barriers within the EI system that prevent people from working so what we’re trying to do is help more people work more, which is better for them, it’s better for their families, for their communities and for the province.”

When asked if people on EI for two months of a year will be forced to accept another job in the off season, Finley said EI recipients are already obligated to actively pursue work under the Employment Insurance Act.

The government set aside $21 million to revamp the program. A portion of this money, Finley noted, will be used to enhance online job banks and enforce regulations detailed in the revised EI regulations.

Mary Leopold, of the New Ross Road, was one of only a few Mason’s workers to address the minister when invited to provide feedback.

“That’s not going to help us if we have to go try to find another job to get on EI,” she said, later adding, “I don’t want to go somewhere else.”

One of Leopold’s co-workers concurred, listing “job security” as her main worry.

Leopold, who has been with Mason’s for four years, said it would be difficult to find temporary work that made it possible for her to return to Mason’s after a brief stint elsewhere.

“If you’re looking for something for those three months there may be – and I say may be – jobs that would suit and, if there are, then you’re going to be better off for taking the job for three months,” Finley responded.

Peter Harrison, the president of J.W. Mason and Sons Ltd., said the majority of Mason’s 130 employees are seasonal workers, and the company generally hires about 30 foreign workers.

“We need to have a good mix of labour and ample supply of labour to look after our harvest. It’s a seasonal industry and it’s always hard to get the proper mix of what we need,” he said.

In spite of talk that the unwritten rules for the EI program of the future may make it harder for companies to hire foreign workers, Harrison believes Mason’s will make it through the impending EI alterations relatively unscathed.

“I’m confident that the government is willing to work with us in whatever capacity we need to make things go forward,” he said.

“It’s just a different approach to doing the same thing.”

Finley, who anticipates the majority of the EI changes will take effect next year, said the Temporary Foreign Workers Program will persist “as planned.”

 

Organizations: Employment Insurance, J.W. Mason and Sons, Human Resources

Geographic location: Windsor Back Road, Hants County, New Ross Road J.W. Mason and Sons Ltd.

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