EI program changes leave hundreds of post-secondary students without funds

Intent of the Fast Forward education program isn’t funding full-time students, province says

Mairin Prentiss · CBC News

Many post-secondary students in Nova Scotia are scrambling to find enough money to go back to school in the fall after the federal government requested a change to a program that allows people to draw employment insurance benefits while studying.

Students in the province’s Fast Forward education program don’t have to look for work while on EI, and can instead enrol in approved programs to update their skills and training.

“I’m extremely devastated by the news, me and along with all the students I know, because a lot of us really depended on this money when we go back to school,” said Jacqueline McNeil, a science student at Université Sainte-Anne.

Employment and Social Development Canada is now requiring participants to have been in the workforce for at least 24 months, which excludes hundreds of students from accessing the program.

Under the new rule, the province anticipates 540 students will no longer be eligible ⁠— a 30 per cent reduction of the over 1,800 people who benefited from the program in Nova Scotia last school year.

Study part time or take a year off?

Without the additional funding, some students are considering reducing their course load to part time or taking a year off to save enough money to continue their programs.

In addition to her student loan, McNeil was able to draw the EI she accumulated from summer jobs to help cover her rent and expenses while she lives in Church Point, N.S., during the school year.

Now, she’s no longer eligible.

‘No other option’

She plans to try to save enough money this summer to remain a full-time student.

“If I end up running out of money and the student loan can’t cover [the balance], I’m going to have to switch from full-time schooling to part-time schooling because I’ll have no other option,” said McNeil from her Sydney home.

“It’s pretty awful honestly. I don’t think it’s right. I think if you can apply for EI and get unemployment, we should still have access to these benefits. It’s money that we earned.”

The province’s Department of Labour and Advanced Education said the federal government asked that the program’s intention be changed to ensure applicants are unemployed workers taking training during a period of unemployment.

“The program is not intended to fund full-time students,” said department spokesperson Shannon Kerr.

Before the change, Fast Forward criteria permitted people who have been out of high school for a minimum of 12 months to access the program as long as they qualified for EI, said Kerr.

The criteria for new applicants came into effect on June 7. Some current applicants will be able to continue in the program until the end of the year.

Program changes

Summer or part-time employment for people enrolled in full-time school does not count toward the 24 required months.

Employment and Social Development Canada did not say how many programs across the country the change affects.

They also did not say the reason behind the change.

Nova Scotia’s program launched in 2015. Changes to EI eligibility the following year allowed students working in the summer months to access the program, said Kerr.

Dalhousie engineering student Allen Cox doesn’t know if he’ll again be eligible to use the program.

The sudden change has left him in the lurch as he considers whether he’ll need to take a year off school to earn money.

“A year’s not the end of the world, but it wasn’t my plan,” said Cox, who used the program for the spring term once he heard about it.

Participants were notified of the change by letter on June 10.

Short notice

Cox said with school resuming in September, that “isn’t very much time to come up with money you thought you had available.”

Had the rules not changed, he estimated he would have been able to draw around $10,000 of EI in the upcoming year — a larger sum than most full-time students would earn because of his program’s four-month-long work terms.

Roughly half of his class of about 80 people are enrolled in the program, he said.

“There’s a lot of students in my degree worried about it,” said Cox.

How changes to EI region boundaries could affect workers

Jordan Press, The Canadian Press

OTTAWA — A federal department is reconsidering the boundaries that determine how workers in different areas qualify for employment insurance.

Changes to the 64 EI regions, as they’re known, would send political ripples through the country as some workers benefit while others find themselves with tougher hurdles to clear to get benefits.

Documents obtained by The Canadian Press under the access-to-information law show how fraught the process can be, noting complaints that haven’t subsided after the last change five years ago.

Employment and Social Development Canada is working on a fast-tracked review of the current boundaries that help decide the number of hours workers need to put in to qualify for EI benefits and how much they can receive depending on where they live.

In general, the idea is to make benefits more generous in parts of the country where it’s harder to get work, though a quirk of the system is that it’s based on residency, not where jobs are. Two people who get laid off from the same company at the same time could have different benefit entitlements because they live on opposite sides of an EI-region boundary.

How the department determines where to draw the lines separating EI zones will be different from previous reviews, with the internal documents detailing a plan to emphasize some factors over others, including putting less reliance on unemployment rates.

If all goes according to plan, the department anticipates making recommendations by September 2020 — one year after this fall’s federal election.

“Changes in boundaries need to be made in a very thoughtful manner because any change in boundaries will involve losers and winners,” Social Development Minister Jean-Yves Duclos, who oversees the EI system, said in a recent interview.

Duclos said the objective needs to be making the EI system better and not about picking “who wins and who loses. That would be a political objective.”

Where the lines go can make a big difference in local politics. Alberta has zones centred on Edmonton and Calgary that include some suburban and surrounding rural areas but not others. After oil prices crashed, the Edmonton region was at first excluded from a 2016 boost to EI benefits, leading to complaints from people who worked in the oilpatch but had permanent addresses in the city.

The 2014 review split P.E.I. into two EI zones with boundary lines drawn in a way that benefited the lone Conservative riding in the province: The entirety of the riding of Egmont, covering the western end of the Island, fell into an EI zone where workers needed fewer hours of work to qualify for benefits.

Tory cabinet minister Gail Shea nevertheless fell to a Liberal challenger the next year. Changing the boundaries so P.E.I. is again one region — as the Liberals once pledged to do — could be problematic for rookie Liberal MP Bobby Morrissey, who holds the Egmont seat, where residents would suddenly lose their advantage.

“It’s extremely unfair, but the dilemma — and I can understand this from my colleague Bobby Morrissey’s point of view — is if you go to one system, then there will be a loss to P.E.I.,” said Wayne Easter, a long-time Island Liberal MP. His riding of Malpeque is partly in the EI zone with more generous benefits, partly in the zone centred on Charlottetown that has less generous benefits.

Any time he goes to an event, people in his own party like to point out the Liberals committed to reverse the changes and tell him that if “it isn’t changed, I’m not going to be able to support you.”

Federal officials, Easter said, must ensure there is a “better understanding of how and why” any changes are made.

The last two-year review wrapped in 2018 without any changes, and provided a set of lessons the department plans to apply this time around. A presentation to the department’s top official noted the unemployment rate should be considered separately from other factors when deciding the borders of an EI region.

The documents say that other labour-market factors — such as the kinds of industries, local demographics and the number of seasonal jobs — would provide a better understanding of the differences between neighbouring regions with similar unemployment rates.

Officials discussed using unemployment rates in the review by looking at long-term trends rather than at a single point in time.

The department said the current review started in October 2018, but there is no requirement at the end for the Canada Employment Insurance Commission, which is responsible for the boundary review, to make any changes.

Cost of giving ill workers extra EI sickness benefits? $1.1 billion

OTTAWA — Providing income support for a year to people who are too sick to work would cost the federal government $1 billion more than its current program, the parliamentary spending watchdog said Thursday, adding new numbers to a debate about the future of the four-decade-old benefit.

As is, the benefit available through employment insurance covers just over half of a worker’s earnings for 15 weeks, and nearly four in 10 beneficiaries max out those benefits, according to government figures.

Just over three-quarters of the claimants who use up all their benefits don’t immediately return to work after their 15 weeks are up, parliamentary budget officer Yves Giroux reported, with most staying off the job for another 26 weeks.

Extending coverage to a maximum of 50 weeks would cost about $1.1 billion, rising to an extra $1.3 billion five years later.

EI sickness benefits are the only of the so-called special benefits under the EI program that the Liberals have not amended since coming to office. Maternity and parental benefits and programs for people caring for seriously ill or injured family members have all been expanded.

However, there appears to be all-party support for a motion in the House of Commons to have a committee of MPs study extending the sickness benefit, which hasn’t been updated since its introduction in 1971.

The minister responsible for the program said Thursday that any changes to the benefit need to take into account the growth of private and employer-sponsored insurance and of other public programs.

“Whenever we are talking about this important benefit, we also need to take into account the broader picture and make sure we do this in the best possible way,” Social Development Minister Jean-Yves Duclos said.

Opposition critics say the numbers from Giroux will fuel cross-party talks on ways to address gaps in the system, including the thousands of claimants who go for weeks without income before getting back to work, or don’t qualify for disability pensions through the Canada Pension Plan.

“What’s clear to me ΓǪ is we need to move beyond the 15 weeks as soon as possible,” said New Democratic Party critic Niki Ashton. “This is a very serious issue for people who live with illnesses and have not been able to access the supports they need.”

Conservative critic Karen Vecchio said MPs need to assess what Canadians want out of the program and also what they’re willing to pay.

“We have to find something that helps Canadians,” she said, adding that “for some families, this is make or break.”

In 2017, the most recent year for which numbers are available, sickness benefits were provided to more than 400,000 claimants at a cost of about $1.6 billion — about one-fifth of all EI claims.

The additional costs to stretch payments to 50 weeks would vary depending on the number of claimants and the average length of time they are off work, from between $899 million and $1.26 billion in the first year, to between $1.06 billion and $1.48 billion after five years.

To pay for it all, Giroux calculates the government would have to raise EI premiums to $1.68 for every $100 of insurable earnings, an increase of six cents.

Marie-Helene Dube, a cancer survivor who has run a campaign called “15weeks” for a decade calling for an extension of the sickness benefit, said workers would spend more on coffee each day than extra premiums.

“I am outraged at this government’s chronic inaction on this issue, despite all of its promises,” she said. “It shows very little respect for the sick citizens who have made contributions (to EI) all their lives.”

Workers who qualify for payments must have worked at least 600 hours in the 52 weeks before they filed their claims, the equivalent of about 16 weeks of full-time work.

In a separate report, Giroux estimated that cutting the number of qualifying hours to 360 would allow just over 73,000 more people to access payments and cost the EI program roughly $325 million in the first year. Giroux said this change would require EI premiums to go up by two cents each year.

Here’s how to navigate Employment Insurance from applying to appealing

By Christopher Reynolds

The Canadian Press

Jeremie Dhavernas carries the weary, battle-ready look of someone slugging it out in a perpetual war.

In the fight against poverty, the Quebec community worker is enlisted to help people navigate the employment insurance system.

“It’s a very complicated program, even just getting through to get information about it,” he said at the office of Mouvement Action-Chomage de Montreal, translated as the Montreal unemployment action movement.

In the wake of General Motors’ announcement in November that it plans to shutter its Oshawa assembly plant this year — affecting nearly 3,000 unionized workers and staff and an economy that shows signs of cooling, experts say Canadians would be wise to brush up on EI and stay alert to its limitations.

Typically, anyone who loses their job through no fault of their own  layoffs or work shortages, for example is entitled to benefits.

Those benefits amount to 55 per cent of your weekly wage, up to a maximum takeaway of $562 per week. The cutoff point is a salary of $53,100, above which recipients receive the same amount regardless of income.

Benefits flow for between 14 and 45 weeks, depending on the number of hours worked in the past year and the regional unemployment rate. The minimum threshold for time worked varies by region and hinges on employment levels.

In Vancouver, where unemployment is below 6.1 per cent, an applicant needs to have worked 700 hours over the last year to be eligible. That amounts to more than four months of full-time work at eight hours a day.

Workers in eastern Nova Scotia, where unemployment sits north of 13 per cent, need only have laboured for 420 hours.

The most that any one recipient could reap in regular benefits is about $25,300 in high-unemployment regions and $21,350 in low-unemployment regions.

The application process begins at Canada’s employment insurance benefits page, which lists the personal information and employment details needed to file a request.

The earlier you start the better even without a record of employment from your employer, which they are obliged to provide since a filing delay of more than four weeks after your last day of work can cost you benefits, the government warns.

Employment and Social Development Canada said in an email that “the EI rules can be complicated and everyone’s situation is unique.”

“Service Canada agents undergo extensive training so that they can provide assistance to you, and ensure you receive all benefits to which you are entitled,” the department said.

Neil Cohen, executive director of the Community Unemployed Help Centre in Winnipeg, said many of the people he helps wind up waiting two or three months for a decision on their claims application.

“The program has really been gutted to a large extent,” he said, citing higher thresholds for hours worked since the early 1990s. “That’s a huge problem, particularly for part-time workers, contract workers often women and marginalized communities.”

The appeals process can be exhausting as well, Cohen said.

The Harper government overhauled the system, paring down a tripartite appeals panel that had representation from labour, business and government to a single adjudicator.

Donna Wood, an adjunct professor in political science at the University of Victoria, called on the government to restore the Canada Employment Insurance Commission to a more independent status with more authority to adjust premiums.

“We’ve got a pretty meagre insurance program…It’s better than the United States for sure, but compared to most European countries, it’s pretty skimpy,” Wood said.

Most urgently, though, potential recipients should apply as soon as they can, and seek out the help of community organizations, she said.

Source: The Canadian Press

Saskatchewan increases maternity, adoption leave to 19 weeks

Saskatchewan is proposing to increase maternity and adoption leaves to offer what the province says will be the longest time off in the country.

A bill introduced in the legislature would allow new mothers to take 19 weeks off _ one week more than they get now.

The proposal would also align parental leave with new federal standards of 59 weeks for a mother if she took full leave.

If another parent took the entire leave or collected employment insurance, parental leave would expand to 63 weeks.

The government also plans to make workers eligible to take 17 weeks off to care for critically ill adult family members.

Interpersonal violence leave is to be extended to 10 days to include survivors of sexual violence.

Survivors can use the time to seek medical or legal assistance, move to a safe space or obtain support services.

“During a major life event, such as bringing a child into the family or assisting a loved one experiencing a serious illness, workers should not have to worry about job security,” Labour Relations Minister Don Morgan said Wednesday in a statement.

Insurance company will allow up to a year off for parents, six months of which will be on full basic pay, regardless of gender

Read more

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