Employment Insurance reform was the hot topic of discussion when Conservative MP Kellie Leitch paid a visit to Grande Prairie, Alberta on Saturday, June 16.
Leitch was a long way from her Ontario riding of Simcoe-Grey, traveling to western Canada in her dual role as Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Human Resources and Skill Development and to the Minister of Labour to discuss facets of the Budget Implementation Act of particular interest to business owners struggling to satisfy their labour needs in a thriving resource industry town.
“[It] is, in fact, the Peace Country’s budget,” said Peace River MP Chris Warkentin, who joined Leitch to discuss the budget bill during her visit.
“It is something we have been begging and pleading for,” he added. “For years and years.”
Warkentin was especially enthusiastic about the changes to EI, made partly in response to a tendency by many Canadian employers to seasonally lay off their staff, who then collect EI until the busy season starts again.
“Unfortunately, there [are] too many industries in Canada that have utilized the Employment Insurance program as a way to allow people to be outside the Workforce,” said Warkentin.
“In Canada,” he continued, “we’ve reached a critical point where we cannot afford to have people being outside of the workforce because of the labour shortages in this country.”
The labour shortages have certainly been a problem for the oil and gas industry and the federal government is hoping that changes to the EI program will help address that issue by encouraging employers to seek better solutions than seasonal layoffs.
“When people in a place like Grande Prairie are outside of the workforce,” said Warkentin, “not only is it costing taxpayers and employers through the premiums that are being paid out into the EI system – so premiums continue to have to go up because people are drawing on the system – but also we’re being disproportionately affected because we desperately need those people in the workforce to fill the gaps.”
Leitch reassured those present that qualifying individuals would still be able to collect EI benefits.
“Let’s be clear,” said Leitch. “We want to better connect Canadians with jobs that are available for them and where they can have full time employment. That’s the best circumstance for family, the best circumstance for the employer and employee.”
That doesn’t mean that the government will be attempting to force individuals who are unemployed to relocate for work.
“We are not going to force people to move to different parts of this country,” said Warkentin. “We are not going to tell someone who lives who-knows-where that they won’t receive unemployment insurance. But what we are telling Canadians across the country is, if there is employment in your community, that is within your qualifications, and you’re not applying for it, then you can’t get unemployment insurance.
“If you have an opportunity to be employed, than clearly you don’t need [EI],” he continued. “We’re going to become more concentrated on ensuring that people that can get a job get a job. Even in [Grande Prairie] the unemployment rate can go up to eight per cent in our region. So, in a place where we are desperate for folks, we need to tell those people, ‘Actually, your option isn’t to get EI. It’s to go get a job that is available.’”
EI reform isn’t the only initiative in the budget bill designed to bridge the labour gap, as the legislation also features a Temporary Foreign Workers Program, a program for people 50 years of age or older who have been laid off or need retraining to join a new profession, and an additional $15 million in funding for the Youth Employment Strategy (YES).
One individual present at the open house noted that it is difficult to attract young people, as well as First Nations, indicating that unemployment levels are high in both groups.
Concerns were also raised regarding employment of foreign workers, particularly in terms of investing time and money in bringing that individual to Canada, only to lose that worker to another iindustry or another province such as Saskatchewan, where the rules around foreign workers are different than in Alberta. Warkentin suggested that is a provincial issue, not federal.
Leitch stressed that employing Canadians is a top priority, too.
“What we are doing is making sure that, if there is an employer that requires
employees, that they know which Canadians are available, and so they will be able to approach those Canadians, know which Canadians have the qualifications in the area to get a job, and once they’ve exhausted that move to a Temporary Foreign Worker,” said Leitch. “So we’re trying to make sure that under all circumstances that Canadians are the first choice.”
The worker shortage is set to become an even bigger issue as major projects ranging from oil and natural gas pipelines to new mining operations and BC Hydro’s Site C could all be underway in the next five to ten years.
“These are huge challenges,” said Leitch. “And that’s why, as a federal government we, are very focused on the issues.”
Leitch added that the government consulted extensively with businesses in western Canada when deciding how to address the issues.
“This is a concern,” she said. “We want to hear from Canadians, hear from Canadian businesses, as well as employees so that we can come up with a comprehensive way to deal with the challenges.”