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January 21, 2014 - No. 2

Government Denial that
Employment Insurance Reform Causes Great Damage

Continued Resistance Movement Sets the Record Straight

Montreal, February 23, 2013. For more than a year, workers across Canada, especially Quebec and the Maritimes, have sustained actions to oppose the Harper government's anti-social EI reforms.

Government Denial that Employment Insurance Reform Causes Great Damage
Continued Resistance Movement Sets the Record Straight - Pierre Chénier
Real Life Exposes Minister of Employment's Falsehoods - Interview, France Simard, Coordinator, Mouvement action chômage, Lac-Saint-Jean, Quebec
Social Security Tribunal Discourages Appeals
Government Spin on Numbers

Government Denial that
Employment Insurance Reform Causes Great Damage

Continued Resistance Movement
Sets the Record Straight

Resistance continues against the government's profoundly anti-social changes to the Employment Insurance (EI) program. As a result of the people's defense of their rights, Minister of Employment, Social Development and Multiculturalism Jason Kenney's denial that anyone is being deprived of EI stands thoroughly exposed. People are particularly incensed at the increased state harassment of unemployed workers and the degree to which they are made to suffer as a result of government wrecking. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Harper, Minister Kenney and other Ministers and MPs of the Harper government keep saying that nothing has changed with the EI reform and that whatever changes were made to the Employment Insurance Act and in the regulations, they are "modest and reasonable." This is nothing but a self-serving distortion of the facts and denial of what the government is up to. For example, workers are now deprived of the five extra weeks of EI benefits that unemployed workers in areas of high unemployment were entitled to before the reform. This now leaves them in a "black hole," a period of time when they have no income at all after their EI benefits expire and before their seasonal work resumes. Because of the crisis that is affecting their particular sector of the economy, such as forestry or fisheries, they are making less money and working fewer hours. This, combined with the new rules of the EI program, makes it even more difficult for them to make ends meet, not to mention the turmoil and humiliation they experience being criminalized by the Harper government.

More than 70 Unions and Community Groups Sign Statement
Demanding Immediate Repeal of EI Changes

Toronto, November 5, 2013 (Good Jobs for All)

On November 5, over 70 unions and community organizations from Quebec, the Atlantic provinces and Ontario signed a statement calling for the repeal of the EI reform and for an immediate improvement in the EI benefits. The statement was released at four press conferences, in Charlottetown, Moncton, Montreal and Toronto.

The statement says in part: "We seek Employment Insurance reforms that benefit workers and their communities" and therefore urges the Parliament of Canada to:

1. Rescind all 2012 and 2013 Budget measures related to EI.

2. Improve EI benefits:

- Improve access by reducing qualifying hours in all regions to the lesser of 360 hours or 13 weeks.

- Increase duration to at least 50 weeks in all regions. Provide a Special Extension when unemployment exceeds 6.5%, paid from federal general revenues.

- Increase benefits to at least 60% of earning's using workers' 12 best weeks. Raise the maximum benefit and eliminate severance pay allocations and the 2-week waiting period.

- Provide EI income benefits so long as workers are in approved training.

- Expand supports for work-sharing arrangements under EI to reduce layoffs, and build links between work-sharing and training.

3. Provide Temporary Foreign Workers with meaningful EI entitlements.

Many Actions in December Across Eastern Quebec

Two of the many demonstrations held at Service Canada offices in Eastern Quebec in December:
La Pocatière (left) and Rivière-du-Loup.

Action against the EI reform at Service Canada office in Causapscal, December 3, 2013.

Eastern Quebec is one of the regions most severely affected by the EI reform because so many workers rely on seasonal work to make a living. Several actions were held in December at Service Canada locations.

On December 3, a group of more than 30 people occupied the Service Canada office in the small forestry town of Causapscal in the Vallée de la Matapédia, handing out leaflets against the EI reform to the staff and residents of the town. As well as demanding that the EI reforms be scrapped, they protested the closure of this office scheduled for the beginning of this year and the firing in October by Service Canada of an EI investigator. This investigator had leaked documents from EI officials giving quotas to EI investigators on how many people they have to cut off benefits every year under the hoax of cracking down on fraud.

On December 16, workers occupied the Service Canada office in Matane for close to an hour and similar actions were held during the month in Rimouski, La Pocatière and Rivière-du-Loup. In all these actions, workers made it clear that they were putting the Harper government on notice that their demand for the immediate withdrawal of the EI changes is as alive today as ever.

Board of Referees Rules in Favour of Matane Workers;
EI Commission Appeals

Workers at a seafood processing plant in Matane, Gaspésie, Quebec did nothing illegal and do not have to refund EI benefits, an Employment Insurance Board of Referees has found. Nonetheless, the Canada Employment Insurance Commission announced that it is appealing the ruling. The case concerns 120 workers at the plant who, for 17 years had an arrangement with the EI regional office and the company whereby they worked seven days in a row and were off on EI the week after. In early 2013, EI investigators ruled that this arrangement was illegal under the Employment Insurance Act and terminated it. The immediate result was the layoff of 50 of these workers and 80 of them have been ordered to refund their last two years of EI benefits, an amount that could reach $19,000.

The union that represents these workers, the Confederation of National Trade Unions (CSN) challenged the ruling of the EI Commission. Fifty of the appeals were made to the old tripartite Board of Referees and the other thirty were made to the new Social Security Tribunal that was created by the EI reforms and replaced the Board of Referees on April 1, 2013. The new Social Security Tribunal is a one man tribunal that does not even have to meet with the workers who appeal its decisions. The old Board of Referees was made up of three referees -- a chairperson, a representative of the workers and a representative of business interests.

The old Board of Referees ruled that the 50 workers do not have to refund their EI benefits because the arrangement they worked under for 17 years was authorized by EI officials. The EI official who authorized the arrangement in 1995 was a witness for the appeal to the Board of Referees and he testified that the arrangement was made with due respect to the law and the full knowledge of the EI commission at the time. The new Social Security Tribunal has ruled that the other 30 workers have to refund their benefits and the EI Commission is appealing the ruling that is favourable to the 50 workers. The decision to appeal the ruling has been firmly denounced by workers who have pledged to keep defending these workers against this blatant state harassment.

Three Years of Non-Stop State Harassment
Against Workers in Cascapedia, Gaspésie

Also in Gaspésie, Quebec, in the small municipality of Cascapedia, in early December some workers appeared on TV, their faces hidden because they fear reprisals, to talk about the three years of harassment they and their small-business employer have been subjected to by Service Canada, Revenue Canada and the RCMP. Under the hoax that they might have lied on their reports about the number of hours they worked, the workers are being subjected to surveillance and harassment. Despite repeated investigations, no charges have been laid against them or their employer in the course of three years, but they continue to receive phone calls and visits by EI investigators, including a visit in 2010 by Service Canada and Revenue Canada investigators accompanied by RCMP officers, insinuating that they are defrauding the EI program. The workers have quit their jobs because of nervous exhaustion. Some of them are now on social assistance and the owner of the business (a small Christmas ornaments factory) is unable to find workers for this seasonal work. When Service Canada was asked to comment on this, CBC reported that according to a Service Canada spokesperson, the matter is under investigation and they are not allowed to comment on it.

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Real Life Exposes Minister of Employment's

TML: France, you have been active for many years now in defending unemployed workers. Recently, the Minister of Employment and Social Development Jason Kenney wrote an open letter to Quebeckers on the EI changes in which he says that nothing has changed, that the regime is basically the same as before the reform. Among other things, Kenney writes, "It is important to note that there has been no change in the way that the unemployed qualify for EI." What is your view on that?

France Simard: According to the Minister, people like us at the Mouvement Action Chômage are fear-mongers who are engaging in disinformation. It is very hard for me to believe what the Minister is saying -- that I am engaging in disinformation. It is very difficult for people like me to agree that the EI reform is something logical and aimed at improving the situation regarding EI. Why don't people like him stop accusing us of doing this or that and come here to see the situation we are facing with their own eyes? We are getting really fed up. I would be very pleased to show them what we are going through. If there is no change in the criteria for unemployed workers to qualify for EI, then why is it that the number of people on EI keeps going down? The criteria are actually getting more and more stringent.

When I see a seasonal worker who is an EI recipient, whose work season has been shorter, who has worked only 13 weeks, and is now getting EI benefits that are $120 less per week than they were last year, what am I supposed to do? The reform has introduced a new method for calculating benefits. Before the reform, the benefits were based on the average wage of your best 14 weeks of work. Now, depending on the rate of unemployment in the area, the benefits are based on the average wage of up to 22 weeks. For example, this seasonal worker worked 13 weeks. At the time he made his claim, the calculation of his benefits was to be made on the basis of 17 weeks of work. So they took what he had earned in 13 weeks and interpreted that this represented a wage that was actually earned over 17 weeks. They based his average wage per week over 17 weeks on the wages he earned in 13 weeks. You can imagine the difference it made -- the worker lost $120 a week in benefits, which means $480 a month.

I held information booths in supermarkets. Employers came to see me and told me that the government is not thinking about their situation. They are having a tough time keeping their workers. This is a concrete problem; it is not something we have concocted as Kenney is pretending. People like him seem to live in ivory towers. We are put in a situation where we are supposed to justify what we say while we face human misery every week.

Information booths about the EI reform at supermarkets in Lac-Saint-Jean, November 2013. (Mouvement Action Chômage)

TML: Minister Kenney writes that there is hardly anybody whose benefits have been reduced or cut off in 2013 because they refused suitable work. What is your experience on this?

FS: I recently had a meeting with an EI recipient who merely refused to do a four-hour shift that he was offered; he did not refuse a job, he just refused a four-hour shift and he had a good reason for it. He was not able to take this shift. He is now being asked to refund seven weeks of benefits because of what is being called a refusal of suitable work. I see these kinds of things all the time, benefits being cut off because of so-called refusal of suitable work. We are having a big fight on what is being called refusal of suitable work since the reform has been put in place.

TML: In his letter, Kenney says emphatically that there will be no problems with EI for seasonal workers who apply for another job in the off season and then quit that job to go back to their seasonal one. He writes: "Available work will only be considered suitable if the recipient would be better off accepting new employment than receiving benefits. And seasonal workers who cannot find work during periods of seasonal unemployment will be expected to look for work, but not expected to move or to accept work that pays less than their EI benefits. They will always have the option of returning to their regular seasonal employment. If an employer is not willing to hire someone because they have indicated they want to return to their seasonal employment, that EI recipient will continue to receive benefits." What is your experience on that?

FS: This is not what is happening. According to the EI program, to voluntarily quit a job can lead to your EI claim being dismissed. If a seasonal worker goes to work somewhere else in the off season, and he finds a job that could be a permanent one, and he quits this job to go back to his regular seasonal work, he may be disqualified when he later tries to get EI because he is considered to have voluntarily quit this second job.

The government pretends that it is going to create a special category for seasonal workers that will allow them to quit a job they find in the off season without penalty. But this is not what is happening. I can't accept that they want us to believe, after a whole year of the reform, that the situation is going to be different for seasonal workers when the EI legislation clearly spells out that voluntarily quitting is a reason to have one's EI benefits terminated. We deal with that all the time -- workers are told that they have quit their job voluntarily and they must face a penalty for that. The answer that we get from the EI people is that yes, we understand that the worker tried to improve his financial situation, this is commendable, but still he quit that job of his own volition, so the weeks he worked for this employer cannot be counted as weeks for which he can claim EI.

Seasonal workers are not dealt with any differently. I have yet to see a case handled the way Kenney describes, that a seasonal worker quits his off-season job, a job he took in order not to go on EI during the off season, and that he leaves the job and goes back to his seasonal job without problem, as far as getting EI is concerned. I have never seen a case like that.

They say we are engaging in disinformation but it is they who, when they say things like that, are the ones spreading disinformation because if you quit your job voluntarily, automatically the number of hours that you can claim from that job on your EI application drops to zero. Therefore, if you are not able to make up enough hours when you are back on your seasonal job, you do not qualify for EI.

Let me give you an example. A forestry worker who works in silviculture cannot work in the forest during winter. He takes a job in the off season, but this could very well become a permanent job that he could have the whole year. Still, he is a seasonal worker, and his seasonal job starts again in June. When he quits his off-season job and returns to his seasonal one, it is possible that he is going to be able to work only 400 hours, he will be short the number of hours required to be eligible for EI. When he next applies for EI, he only has 400 hours in his forestry job. He may ask to use the hours he needs to qualify for EI from the job that he had in the off season and that he quit. They are going to look at his file, and they are going to tell him that he quit his other job voluntarily, and therefore these hours cannot be counted on his application. They will tell him that it was commendable on his part to take that job but still he quit of his own volition and these hours are no good. This happens all the time. That is how the law reads. There is no special treatment for seasonal workers the way Kenney suggests. I have been working with Action Chômage for more than 10 years and for the last 10 years quitting your job voluntarily is not something that the EI program has ever accepted.

TML: Thank you very much for these clarifications and best wishes for success in your important work in the New Year.

FS: Thank you very much and all the best in the New Year to your newspaper.

(Translated from original French.)

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Social Security Tribunal Discourages Appeals

According to the newspaper Le Devoir, the number of appeals to the new Social Security Tribunal is in free fall compared to the number made previously to the Office of the Umpire, which was eliminated by the Harper government's Employment Insurance (EI) reform. Since April 1, 2013, when the Social Security Tribunal came into force, to November 30, 2013, the new EI appeals system has received less than 1,800 appeals. This is 85 per cent fewer than the average received in previous years. To date, only 16 per cent of the appeals submitted have been resolved.

EI reform has created a "mandatory review" stage for any dispute. An unemployed person whose application for benefits is denied or whose benefits are cut must now apply for a review of their case by the EI Commission before filing an appeal to the Social Security Tribunal. The Harper government claims that the number of requests for administrative review is roughly the same as the number of appeals that were brought before the Office of the Umpire. In fact, if their case is rejected during administrative review, very few unemployed persons appeal. According to Le Devoir, fewer than 15 per cent of unemployed persons who received an unfavourable judgment during review appealed their case. This is due to the likelihood of rejection and long delays in an appeal under the Social Security Tribunal. "Under the old system the vast majority of cases were resolved within 45 days. Now one waits months not knowing what's going on," said Hans Marotte, spokesperson for Mouvement Action Chômage de Montréal, a group which defends the rights of the unemployed.

"Not knowing what's going on" describes the situation that has been created, which eliminates as many recipients as possible. The Social Security Tribunal has not posted any decisions it has taken. On December 19, the Tribunal's chairperson wrote that it is in the process of establishing a "process of selection of decisions issued to date." All decisions of the Office of the Umpire were published. This established jurisprudence on which representatives of the unemployed relied to defend their cases. Lawyers for the EI Commission, on the other hand, have access to all decisions of the Social Security Tribunal. At the moment, only those defending the unemployed in a specific case can access the decision on that issue.

Multiple barriers to filing appeals and the elimination of jurisprudence on which to plead cases are measures put in place to abandon the unemployed and make them disappear. It must not pass!

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Government Spin on Numbers

The Harper government is spinning the Employment Insurance (EI) numbers in an attempt to prove that its EI reforms have had no impact. The October data from Statistics Canada show a drastic decrease in the number of EI recipients between October 2012 and October 2013. The number of EI beneficiaries in Canada fell by 8.4 per cent over the year while the unemployment rate has declined 0.7 per cent. In Prince Edward Island the number of recipients during this period decreased by 15 per cent, while the unemployment rate fell by 0.9 per cent. For 2012, on average 95.6 per cent of the unemployed in the province received EI but in the first 10 months of 2013 the average fell to 80.6 per cent.

The Harper government's response to this has been twofold. Employment and Social Development Canada insists that nothing has changed in the regulations that would affect the situation of the unemployed. At the same time, the Harper government says that the decline in the number of recipients is due to the declining unemployment rate and economic recovery. Even Statistics Canada does not bear this out. Saying that the unemployment rate has fallen does not explain why the percentage of unemployed receiving Employment Insurance has so drastically decreased.

The people of Prince Edward Island say a large number of unemployed are receiving benefits for shorter periods than before or having benefits cut without explanation. The burden is placed on the unemployed to contest but the appeal mechanisms have become very restrictive and the number of EI employees to deal with the appeals is constantly being reduced.

Silence is being imposed on the situation of the unemployed and the data on unemployment. Nothing is explained and the government simply declares that all is well. It will not meet with the unemployed or their advocacy organizations and see for themselves the situation on the ground.

Putting government spin on the numbers and hiding behind a wall of press releases, the government is playing with the lives of the unemployed whose situation is getting worse.

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