Thank you, Mr. Chair.
Honourable members of the committee, good afternoon.
I appear before you today to talk about the situation facing workers in seasonal industries who live in regions that revolve around those industries.
Seasonal industries have always played an important role in Canada's economy. In certain regions of the country, those industries are paramount, generating the bulk of available jobs. Unfortunately, because of this dependence on seasonal industries in a growing number of regions, workers can no longer live on the combination of seasonal work and employment insurance, or EI.
Even if workers take every available job during the busy season, they can't get through the off-season. In a good year, a seasonal worker will work for 14 weeks, or the equivalent of 525 hours. Even in regions where the unemployment rate is over 16%, workers are eligible for only 33 weeks of benefits, leaving them with no income for five weeks. The problem is that few jobs are available in the off-season. The lack of economic diversity means that workers have to rely on EI.
The black hole or spring gap, in other words, the weeks without income, exacerbates regional decline. People are fed up with always having to live on the brink, so they move to urban centres. The government's response—a pilot project to provide five additional weeks of benefits—was certainly a welcome boost, but it's not enough. As I've just shown, even in regions with the highest unemployment rates, the spring gap persists. It's always existed, but for many of us, it's gotten worse in recent years. It has to do with the fact that a number of affected communities are in EI economic regions with lower unemployment rates that do not reflect the local economies.
For instance, in the Restigouche-Albert region, where I'm from, our small communities depend on the seasonal industry, but they are lumped together with the Moncton suburban area, and that brings down the unemployment rate. Let's look at another example. On the upper north shore, the local unemployment rate is 9% higher than the rate of the EI economic region it belongs to. In order to qualify for benefits, workers have to accumulate nearly 700 hours, which is very hard to do. What's more, even if they do qualify, all they are entitled to is 18 weeks of benefits.
I'd like to draw your attention to another problem. The unemployment rate is dropping in a number of affected communities, but the reason isn't that there are more jobs. It's that the population is getting older, so fewer people are applying for the same number of jobs—hence, why the pilot project needs to be enhanced. We suggested that to the minister, but to no avail, unfortunately.
Here's what we are recommending. First, the government should raise the number of additional weeks of benefits in the designated regions to 10. Those additional weeks would be subject to the current maximum number of benefit weeks, 45 and more. Next, the government should expand access to the pilot project by changing the eligibility criteria for seasonal workers. Right now, the rules are complicated and arbitrary, so much so that genuine seasonal workers don't qualify for benefits. We recommend making employers indicate on the record of employment whether the layoff was seasonal, so workers are judged less harshly. In addition, we recommend that the government revisit the EI economic regions map to bring it more in line with labour market conditions. The map hasn't changed in 20 years. Can you believe that? It's time to brush off the dust and bring it up to date.
I'd like to take this opportunity to recognize the people who work at the Canada Employment Insurance Commission and all the committees who have worked so hard on employment insurance issues. I'd also like to thank the Conseil national des chômeurs et chômeuses, because the EI offices are closed and we are the ones having to help those workers.
Lastly, there is another option: redesigning the parameters of the EI program for all Canadians. That means making 420 the number of hours required to qualify, providing 35 or even 40 additional weeks of benefits, and using the best 12 weeks to determine the benefit rate. That formula has a dual advantage: simplicity and fairness.
To those who worry that such changes could lead to abuse of the system, I have two things to say. First, even full EI benefits do not provide the equivalent of minimum wage, which, in and of itself, is not enough to meet the government's low-income cut-off.
Second, according to the Employment Insurance Monitoring and Assessment Report, on average, claimants access benefits for just 20 of the 35 weeks they are entitled to. That means the vast majority of Canadians use the EI program reasonably. Conversely, 33% of claimants exhaust their benefits before they are able to find work. Those are the people we worry about, and I hope you do too.
In closing, I hope you take two things away from my presentation. Number one, regions need revitalization support. Number two, EI will not fix every problem, to be sure, but it's an essential part of the solution. The government needs to make changes to EI to better support seasonal workers in affected regions. As I see it, there's a serious problem. EI failed people during the COVID-19 crisis, so the government had to invent a whole new program, the Canada emergency response benefit.