Many seasonal workers in the Tantramar region are troubled by the latest round of EI reforms brought in by the federal government, changes which could force them to seek out lower-paying jobs that are further away from home.
Murray Corner resident Brenda Dubé, who has worked at a fish plant in Cap Pele for nearly 30 years, is unsure of how the EI changes will specifically affect her and her fellow workers because very little information has been made available at this point. But what she does know is that she will likely be required to actively look for work during her off-season, which is usually about three months each year, or face being cut off from her EI benefits.
Dubé questions where she and her fellow plant workers will find employment when jobs are already so scarce in the area.
And at age 62, she doesn’t anticipate job-seeking will be too easy.
“At our age, who’s going to hire us? And most of us aren’t bilingual . . .”
She said she works hard at the fish plant and she has relied on EI for many years to bridge the gap between early February, when she gets laid off, and late April when she returns to her job.
Many employers are also concerned over the changes, worried that their seasonal workers will find other jobs during the off-season, rendering them unavailable when the industries – such as fish processing plants, construction jobs, tourism attractions, etc.– start up again.
“There is a concern that if those people find work elsewhere, they’ll be losing a skilled workforce,” said Tantramar MLA Mike Olscamp, who also serves as New Brunswick’s Minister of Agriculture, Aquaculture and Fisheries.
Farmhands, fishing boat crews, service technicians – the fear is that many of these experienced workers will find work elsewhere, many of them outside the province.
And although the new measures are raising concerns in rural New Brunswick areas, where seasonal industries are often the main sources of income, Olscamp said he thinks it’s reasonable for the federal government to expect people to look for work during their EI claim periods; but without placing “undue hardship” on the workers (jobs beyond their expertise, extra costs associated with travel or child care, etc.)
“If there are jobs, and they’re close by, they should go to work,” he said.
The MLA pointed out, however, that because there are so many individual cases that will need to be looked at – for instance, a cook or food service worker at the university dining hall who are laid off during the summer but are required to be on call during those months until they return to their full-time jobs – that a “one-size-fits-all” approach may not work in many of these circumstances.
Olscamp thinks the federal government’s intent with these new measures is to mainly “go after people who are abusing the system.”
“The feds want to get people working . . .and that’s fine if there’s work for them. I just hope people are dealt with in a fair manner. Why target those people who would work year-round if they could, if the work was there?”
Beausejour Liberal MP Dominic LeBlanc said the new EI rules are, understandably, causing a great deal of fear and uncertainty for seasonal workers in New Brunswick.
“I hope a lot of the anxiety will prove to be unfounded,” he said.
Under the EI reforms, which came into effect earlier this month, repeat claimants may be required to accept jobs that are available off-season rather than wait for their old jobs to resume — even if the new jobs pay up to 30 per cent less than their normal wages and are located up to an hour's commute away.
LeBlanc said overall, getting more people working in New Brunswick is a reasonable goal.
“If there’s available work and people can get there to do it, then they should be obligated to take it, ” he said.
But he also pointed out that many of the workers the government are targeting are also the most vulnerable – low-income, rural New Brunswickers who don’t necessarily have access to transportation to go to work elsewhere or have a computer to receive the employment e-mails that are supposed to help connect people with jobs.
As well, LeBlanc said he worries about the employers who already find it a challenge to recruit and retain workers for seasonal jobs each year – in tourism, forestry, farming, construction, etc.
“They need access to a workforce.”
He said if people can’t find work or their EI benefits start getting cut off, they may be enticed to head to Alberta or some could even end up on income assistance. That would leave New Brunswick in a tougher economic situation than it is in now.
The federal Conservative government, however, has been insisting that criticism over the changes has been exaggerated.
The responsibilities of EI claimants have not changed, said New Brunswick MP Bernard Valcourt in the media recently. They must actively seek jobs, just as they’ve always done, only now they must keep more detailed records.
He also noted that a job will only be considered suitable for claimants if the pay is better than their EI benefits. And if people can’t find employment in their community, they will not be cut off. If the jobs aren’t there, then nothing changes.