An Island woman says recent changes to the employment insurance program could mean a long, hard winter for many people on Prince Edward Island.
In 2020, the eligibility for EI was reduced to 420 hours to help support people through the pandemic. Those on EI were also given 300 bonus hours, so they received larger payments, for longer.
But on Sept. 24, those temporary changes expired, meaning the old rules will apply for anyone filing for EI after that date.
People living in the P.E.I. EI zone will need 560 hours of work over a minimum of 18 weeks to qualify for regular EI benefits. Those living in the Charlottetown zone will need 700 hours with a minimum of 22 weeks.
Seasonal worker Mary Mckearney Morrison lives in the Cardigan area, about 40 minutes east of Charlottetown. She was able to get her EI claim in ahead of the change — but said without the bonus hours, she'll run out of EI at the end of February — with no money coming in until she resumes work in June.
'Things are going to be pretty tight'
Mckearney Morrison said although her husband has a full-time job, they rely on the extra money to pay for everything from rent and utilities to food.
"Things are going to be pretty tight."
She said she's tried in recent months to let others know that the EI requirement changes were coming, but she's worried many will still be caught off guard — and left without enough money to get through the winter.
"The cost of living is just going up and up and up and up," said Mckearney Morrison. "I don't see how people are going to survive, you know, three and four months with no money coming in — nothing."
She said finding work in rural areas of the Island can be extremely hard in the winter months, so options to earn extra money to make ends meet are minimal. And the price of gas makes it hard to look for work that isn't close to home.
They can't just leave people high and dry because at the end of the day, seasonal workers, they keep this Island going. — Mary McKearney Morrison
"There is nothing out here in rural P.E.I., nothing unless you're working for the government or something to that effect. Other than that, the fish plants are closed, the restaurants are closed, everything is closed."
She said for a province with so many seasonal workers, the right supports to keep seasonal industries viable, simply aren't in place.
"They can't just leave people high and dry because at the end of the day, seasonal workers, they keep this Island going."
MP getting calls
Charlottetown MP Sean Casey said his office is getting calls from people about the changes to EI — because they've come at a time when some of the most vulnerable Islanders are already struggling to make ends meet.
"This is certainly one of the concerns that we have been hearing about, because it affects people right in the pocketbook at an extremely difficult time," said Casey.
I don't think a notification on the website is enough for something this important. — Charlottetown MP Sean Casey
Casey said the changes — posted on the Government of Canada's EI website — were always meant to be temporary. But he said they could have been better communicated to help people plan ahead.
"I don't think a notification on the website is enough for something this important," he said.
EI system overhaul
"What bothers me more, to be brutally honest, is that we have not made more rapid progress on the overhaul to the EI system that was promised in the last election and that is contained in Minister [Carla] Qualtrough's letter," he said.
"I chaired a committee that made recommendations to the government with respect to the modernization of EI, including the elimination of two zones in the last Parliament, and to date that recommendation, and most of the others, haven't been taken up."
Casey said work continues on that large-scale overhaul of the EI system, that would address gaps like support for seasonal workers — but its unclear how long it might take.
He said he's been told the process is complicated, and will take time to get right, and there's currently no timeline on when it will be complete.
"We've passed legislation that will provide some help with respect to rent. We've passed legislation that will provide some help in terms of the doubling of the GST rebate. But these are indeed difficult economic times and I and the government will continue to explore ways to help those in need."
Casey also said by the end of this year, legislation increasing sickness benefits under the EI program should be brought into effect. This will see EI sick benefits increase from 15 to 26 weeks.
Meanwhile, a bill to return Prince Edward Island to one EI zone, sponsored by former P.E.I. Senator Diane Griffin, is currently making its way through the Senate. It has passed second reading, with its third reading currently in progress.