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Workers oppose Northern employment insurance changes
Unions mobilize against federal plan to bring territories' rates in line with south

Daron Letts
Northern News Services
Published Wednesday, February 26, 2014

About a dozen Yellowknife residents rallied on short notice outside the Greenstone Building on Thursday to protest the federal government's looming changes to employment insurance rates.

nnsl photo

Anne Juneau, left, and Mark Populus protest changes to the federal EI program for residents of Yellowknife in front of the Greenstone building on Thursday. - Graeme McNaughton/NNSL photo

The half-hour demonstration, organized by the Northern Territories Federation of Labour, coincided with federal Employment Minister Jason Kenney's visit to Yellowknife last week.

During his Yellowknife tour, Kenney announced that the longstanding fixed unemployment rate of 25 per cent will no longer be the standard by which unemployment rates in the territories are calculated.

Beginning Oct. 12, actual unemployment rates for the three territorial capitals will be used to determine employment benefits in those regions. A separate average will be calculated based on rolling quarterly and annual averages for all the rest of the communities in each territory, with the highest of those averages being put into effect.

Kenney said the change would solve the problem of a shortage of skilled labourers experienced by Northern employers. However, the Northern Territories Federation of Labour argues the move will have the opposite effect, driving more skilled workers south.

"Workers aren't going to be able to afford to live here," said federation president Mary Lou Cherwaty. "We have a high cost of living and with reduced claims now it's a recipe for disaster. In the NWT specifically, we're the only region of the country that's had consistent rates of out-migration on an annual basis and our GNWT is talking about increasing the population of workers by 2,000 in the next five years. Well, it's going to be a lot tougher to do now."

The new rate changes will force laid off or seasonal workers to turn around and get a new job quickly, she said, resulting in skilled workers being pushed into low-paying service industry positions.

"In the capitals it's very clear that in order to qualify for benefits, we're going to have to work 700 hours instead of 420 (to qualify for unemployment insurance), which means that even after working all of that the maximum benefits are going to be like 36 weeks instead of 45,"she said. "So, somebody who is laid off from their employment, first of all, has to make sure they've qualified in order to even receive anything and if they do qualify, they're only going to receive a maximum of the 36 instead of 45 weeks."

The calculations also do not take into account the high cost of living in the North when trying to bring rates in line with the south, she added.

"If it isn't broke, don't fix it," she said. "Making it equal doesn't make it fair."

The effect on aboriginal communities and seasonal workers is unknown, she said, adding any changes to employment insurance should have been introduced incrementally if at all to give workers time to adapt.

"At the end of the day, one of the things that frustrates me is, why such a big jump all at once," she said.

The changes will be gazetted in April for about 30 days, she said, during which Northern unions will provide feedback to the federal government.

"Whether they listen to it or not is another story, but certainly we'll do every effort we can to try to change this," she said.

Members of the federation executive were scheduled to meet via tele-conference last night to discuss how to proceed with union opposition to the plan.

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