Robyn Benson, PSAC

Life in the EI swamp

Since I last blogged about Employment Insurance, the situation for ordinary Canadians has become even worse. And it’s been less than two months!

The latest statistics reveal that the number of unemployed Canadians receiving EI benefits has reached an all-time low—36.6%. When you take a look at individual municipalities in 1997 and now in 2014, there have been some significant drops. Hamilton has taken the hardest hit, with the number of unemployed receiving benefits cut nearly in half.

Under restrictive new rules introduced by the Harper government, working people who have paid into the EI fund for years receive no assistance when they find themselves jobless. Sure, they can always appeal, and then wait more than a year for a hearing. There used to be 1,000+ part-time referees to hear their cases: that’s now down to fewer than 70 people, trying to handle a backlog of 10,000 appeals. And after a lengthy delay, more than 80% of claimants lose their appeals anyway. Small wonder, we might think: the new EI appeals tribunal members are Conservative appointees, and several have donated money to the Conservative party.

New EI policies, designed to hurt rather than help; new appeal mechanisms, rigged against claimants; and employee cuts everywhere, made without rhyme or reason across the public service, as the Parliamentary Budget Office has just reported. And those cuts are far from over.

This is obviously a recipe for disaster from an unemployed person’s point of view. But it’s no picnic for our front-line workers in charge of the EI programs, either. All too frequently they get blamed for the bad policies they are required to administer. Yet it is government-created backlogs and delays and tight new rules that are the problem here, even if that very government has pointed the finger at its own employees on occasion to cover up its poor decision-making, and gone after conscientious whistle-blowers who object to being ordered to treat EI claimants unfairly.

These front-line federal government employees are workers too. There are opportunities here to build alliances, as we have in the recent past, between our members and those whom they serve. Our EI administrators have the latest information on the maze of rules and regulations that unemployed Canadians now need to navigate to qualify for assistance. They know who will be adversely affected, and how.

For example, part-time workers who establish an EI claim have to search for full-time employment to receive benefits, regardless of their circumstances, such as the availability of child-care. No one enjoys having to enforce that kind of discriminatory policy. And the same slashes and cutbacks that have made unemployed Canadians wait far too long for the benefits to which they are entitled are hurting our members, who are struggling to do their best to help those in need with massively increased workloads and sizeable backlogs to clear.

It’s pretty easy to see how common cause can be made here. This Labour Day, we should re-commit ourselves to forging these natural alliances between ourselves and the general public. We’re in for a challenging few months with the current round of collective bargaining—maybe the toughest period we’ve ever experienced as a union. But we’re not facing this government alone. Countless Canadians have their own reasons to want the Harper government gone, and can’t wait until the federal election next year. Time to join forces, folks. We’re going to need each other.

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This page contains a single entry by Robyn Benson, PSAC published on August 29, 2014 7:07 PM.

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