Seasonal workers hoping for EI reform that will eliminate ‘black hole’




SaltWire Network


It never used to be a problem getting enough work in the local seafood processing plants to make a decent living when Mandy Symonds first started working in the industry 30 years ago. Now, the Cape Sable Island plant worker is lucky to get enough hours to qualify for Employment Insurance (EI). “From when I started until now, as far as what we could get for work, is a big downturn,” says Symonds. “Back then, we had a lot of fish processing and didn’t rely as much on EI because we were working a lot. Now the groundfish fishery is gone. All we have is lobster and some herring and some tourism and what we have is only part-time.” Working two jobs, Symonds can get about 15 weeks of employment in the run of a year, enough to qualify for 16 to 20 weeks of EI benefits, leaving her without any income for between three to four months of the year. It’s what’s known as the EI black hole by seasonal workers. Benefits have run out and there is no work to generate income. “It stresses you,” says Symonds. “It’s not a lifestyle everybody chooses, but it’s what we have.” For years, Symonds has been lobbying for change to the way EI benefits are calculated for seasonal workers in southwestern Nova Scotia, given that the availability of seasonal workers is vital to sectors of the economy. At one time, Nova Scotia was divided into five EI economic zones. Southwestern Nova Scotia was one zone. When that number was reduced to three, the Western Nova Scotia zone included much of mainland Nova Scotia, including Annapolis, Colchester, Cumberland, Digby, Hants, Kings, Lunenburg, Pictou, Queens, Shelburne and Yarmouth counties. The problem, says Symonds, is not only does the larger zone create a lower unemployment rate, making it harder for seasonal workers to qualify for EI, but it’s also unfair. “There are more employment opportunities in other areas like Bridgewater,” Symonds says. “Around here, it’s mostly part-time. We don’t have a lot of diversity. I look at the job bank all the time – 20 hours here, 20 hours there – you can’t live off 20 hours at minimum wage.” Even in the seafood processing plants, most work is seasonal part-time, Symonds says. Although the commercial lobster season runs for six months, that doesn’t translate into six months of full-time employment. “We don’t have people who choose in rural Canada to do seasonal work; what we have are seasonal businesses,” says South Shore St. Margaret’s MP Rick Perkins, who met with Symonds last month. Perkins notes the Western Nova Scotia EI zone includes communities such as Windsor, Wolfville and Truro, within commuting distance to Halifax. “That lowers the unemployment rate in the region, which lowers the benefits,” he says, noting if you took the unemployment rate of just the South Shore, you would have a higher unemployment rate, and therefore the weeks of benefits would be longer. “Halifax is getting bigger and bigger. There are a lot of opportunities in Halifax, not so much in Shelburne County, Argyle or Digby," he says. "Opportunities are more limited, so grouping them together with people who commute into Halifax for work doesn’t seem to reflect the reality of rural employment opportunities." Seasonal workers in the agriculture and tourism industries are also impacted. “There are two issues, separate but related,” says Perkins. “One is how work flows during a certain period and the other is once you qualify, what are the weeks of benefits that you get. That is based on a formula driven by the unemployment rate and if you’re including more and more urban areas into a rural area, that distorts it.” According to a mandate letter to Karina Gould, the federal minister of Families, Children and Social Development, who is also responsible for Service Canada, an overhaul of the Employment Insurance Act is due by the summer of 2022, says Perkins. "Anytime the Act gets opened up – which is apparently on the Liberal agenda – is an opportunity for issues like this," he says. "It’s not the primary reason why the Liberals have reform of EI on their agenda. They have it on there presumably to deter the limits of the Act that we saw during the pandemic ... there are gaps in the working income support system.” Perkins plans to write the minister to encourage, as part of the review, a look at seasonal work issues – the formula of the income and the hours worked during a period of time. "Perhaps some of the flexibility of seasonal work needs to be built in," he says. Symonds, meanwhile, is continuing in her efforts to have the voices of seasonal workers in southwestern Nova Scotia heard by participating in round table discussions with top Service Canada officials this month, and partnering with other labour groups such as the Interprovincial Alliance, which is made up of groups of unemployed workers, community activists and trade unions from Eastern Canada. On Dec. 20, members of the Alliance, including Symonds, gathered in front of Service Canada offices throughout the region, putting up Christmas trees decorated with Black Holes as ornaments. Alliance members also sent Christmas cards to the prime minister and all MPs. The action was taken to remind the government that workers from the seasonal industry will be confronted with a black hole again this year since the long-awaited and frequently-promised reform in the Employment Insurance program has not been implemented. The alliance says extensive delays in processing employment insurance requests made by unemployed workers, contradictory information from Service Canada, and requests denied without valid reasons are among issues frequently experienced by seasonal workers. Several years ago, Symonds started a Facebook page, Southern NS Seafood Workers Alliance, as a way to help seasonal workers with questions about EI. It has more than 500 members.