EI changes leave those affected scrambling to make it work

By Stephen Macdonald
Feb. 28, 2014

In the fall of 2012, Roger and Susan Byers became the face of the movement for changes to the new EI system where half of your earnings are taken while on EI.
Before September 2012, Roger could work part-time and make up to 25 per cent of the amount he received from his employment insurance.
But when the federal government introduced the new system, he automatically had half of his earnings clawed back.
After a year and three months of pressure, the government said in December there would be one day, Jan. 6, when people could revert to the old system. Roger got his claim in.
Things are about to get even more complicated. Byers has enough hours for his claim, but wonders what will happen to people who don’t because they live in Charlottetown and now need more hours than previously required. A new zoning system taking affect in the fall means P.E.I. will be divided between rural areas and the greater Charlottetown area. In Charlottetown, you need more hours than in areas considered to be rural.
What becomes of the people who always had enough hours, but because of the new system and the fact that they live in Charlottetown they need more, Roger said.
“The new zoning system doesn’t work, I don’t have to worry about having enough hours, but it will really hurt other people. It’s not fair to divide the Island like that where people doing the same work have different access to EI.”
There should be no division or lines on the Island, said Roger.
“Forget the lines, the only lines on the island should be the ones separating the three lots and 67 counties.”
He feels for the people suffering through this ordeal because being a seasonal worker, a manual sweeper for the city of Charlottetown, he has enough hours for his claim, but you still need something to supplement the amount you lose while on EI, Roger said.
“It’s not like you get the full amount from EI that you make throughout the year, so I make up that portion through part-time work at a bingo hall. But then they started to take half of that, I was losing $400 a month when the new system came into affect.”
When the new system came into affect you couldn’t earn anything without them taking half, said Susan.
“You even had to report odd job. If you shoveled someone’s driveway for $20 your supposed to give them $10.”
Once the realization set in that it would affect them like this, they went to see their local MP, said Susan.
“As soon as they announced the changes, we knew it was going to affect Roger negatively. I looked it up online and did the calculations before going to see Sean Casey.”
Casey, the Liberal MP in Charlottetown, was pleased to see them, said Susan.
“Sean was really happy to see us because he was aware it was going to affect people, but no one came forward until Roger and he became the case study that they could use.”
It was great to have someone to reference, said Casey.
“Roger is the average man, and I had to make them realize it’s not working for the average man.”
Sean and another MP from Nova Scotia brought up Rogers name several times in Ottawa, Susan said.
“Sean and Roger Cuzner, an MP from Nova Scotia brought Rogers case to the House of Commons. They brought up his name every chance they got to put a face to the issue with the hope the government may overturn their decision.”
Just to get a one day opportunity to go back to the old system took many people coming forward, but initially people were fearful of repercussions for them speaking out, Roger said.
“People were fearful to come forward as they thought something could happen to them. But my mindset was the hell with it, their already taking my money what more can they do.”
No changes should have been made, and they realize that now, said Roger.
“The old system was working just fine, and there doing a lot of back peddling now because they know there wrong.”
They know their wrong, and they know this affects us but they don’t care to realize how much it affects us, said Roger.
“I think it is a lack of understanding, and if harper walked a mile in my moccasins he’d know how hardworking East coasters are. Were losing a lot of skilled workers to Alberta, and that effects everything.”
UPEI Political Science professor Peter McKenna said the Atlantic Provinces are just not relevant to the federal government, which has its base in bigger provinces.
“They don’t understand the seasonal and depressed economy because they are not interested. The 32 seats for Atlantic Canada does not matter to the Harper government whose Conservative policies appeal to residents of Alberta, B.C. and Ontario where there base is. But I wish they would make more of an effort.”
As much as the government doesn’t care, it would still like to keep MP Gail Shea in power in P.E.I. and that is where the new changes stem from, said McKenna.
“It’s a pretty good indication they realize Shea’s in trouble, and she realizes this. That’s why she’s trying to fix things, at least in her riding to make sure she would be re-elected in 2015. But I think it’s too late, if a credible candidate comes forward they will stand a good chance.”
Casey agreed with McKenna, saying it’s too late for Shea to repair things, and the double standard she has created will come back to haunt her.
“I do think the changes to create a two-tier EI policy is unfair. More importantly, it seems the policy change was made for the electoral benefit of the person who made the change, Minister Shea. The people of P.E.I. see through this ruse, and will respond in kind.”
The changes shouldn’t have happened in the first place, but the recent changes should apply to everyone on the Island, said McKenna.
“I would have never made the changes they announced 18 months ago, but the changes they made now should apply everyone in the province. It’s divisive and polarizing to pit people against one and another in a province.”
This new system announced by Shea is definitely divisive, said Casey.
“I think her move is divisive and deliberately so. It divides Islanders and creates a situation were one individual working in a seasonal industry will qualify for EI, while another individual working at the same job will not qualify for no other reason that under the new rules he lives in a town requiring more hours to qualify. This two-tier approach is fundamentally wrong and unfair.”
Not only is this political on the part of Shea, but on the part of the federal government as well, said McKenna.
“It’s political, it’s not about balancing the budget. There’s a lots of money in the EI fund. It’s a pitch to the Conservative base out west saying we’re cracking down on those folks down east talking advantage of the system, that’s what this is all about.”
Island residents will continue to suffer as long as the government plants it’s roots out west and makes no effort to understand our economy, said Casey.
“First, there must be recognition that P.E.I. is a seasonal economy. Without that fundamental understanding we are subjected to policy changes that hurt people and their ability to provide for their families. “
“To date, the Conservative government has done little that would indicate that they understand the unique nature of the Island economy. Until they do, Islanders will continue to feel economic pains as a result.”