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EI reform: stop punishing seasonal workers

Brian Lee Crowley writes in the Globe and Mail that providing seasonal workers with Employment Insurance is a corrosive economic policy that traps workers in Atlantic Canada, and prevents them from being more productive in the oil sands.

Let's assume for the moment that this view is correct, and disallowing seasonal workers from collecting EI is the solution to Alberta's labour shortage.

In 2012 Alberta employers reported around 50,000 – 60,000 unfilled job vacancies each month. In all of Atlantic Canada there were 60,000 seasonal workers in 2012. Workers who have families, and pay taxes, and volunteer in their communities. Workers whose work supports other, full-time industries in Atlantic Canada. But, 60,000 workers who, according to Brian Lee Crowley, are squandering their productive capacity, so let's move them to Alberta.

But wait! What about the nearly 100,000 Albertans who are unemployed and looking for work? What about the 40,000 Albertans who are themselves seasonal workers? And what if the 60,000 seasonal workers from Atlantic Canada aren't trained to do any of the 60,000 vacant jobs in Alberta? Shouldn't we focus on training Alberta workers who want to work in Alberta?

The labour shortage in Saskatchewan and Alberta is a separate issue from regional seasonal employment. The workers recruited from Ireland, the UK, and the US are being recruited because they are already trained welders, electricians, heavy equipment operators, and engineers. Atlantic Canadian colleges are busy training skilled tradespeople who leave home for work in the oil patch as soon as they are able. Some high demand courses have wait lists of over two years. Canadian planes are full of workers who commute across the country for work in Northern Alberta.

Employment Insurance is meant to improve labour market attachment, prevent wages from being depressed, and improve productivity by allowing for better labour market matches. Punishing seasonal industries that are the backbone of the Eastern Canadian economy would merely be punitive, not constructive.

We need better labour market information to identify upcoming skills gaps and ensure that there are enough spots to train Canadian workers to fill them. Unemployed workers in Nova Scotia and Alberta would rather be working than collecting EI, so let's help them figure out how to do that, rather than punishing them for being unemployed.

Angella MacEwen is Senior Economist with the Canadian Labour Congress.