P.E.I.'s Minister of Economic Growth and Tourism Matthew MacKay has written to his federal counterpart in Ottawa, asking her to return the province to a single zone for calculating employment insurance benefits.
In a letter dated Jan. 27, 2020, MacKay asked federal Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Disability Inclusion Carla Qualtrough to "consider amendments to the employment insurance regulations to return Prince Edward Island back to one economic region."
But there's a catch to that request: MacKay has asked Ottawa to apply the most favourable conditions from P.E.I.'s two current EI zones to the entire province.
Across the country the number of hours Canadians are required to work to qualify for EI and the number of weeks of benefits they're entitled to are based on local unemployment rates in more than 60 separate economic regions.
In 2014 Prince Edward Island, which had been one region, was split into two: a Charlottetown region taking in the capital area but also communities ranging from New Glasgow to Blooming Point on the province's North Shore; and a P.E.I. region encompassing the rest of the province.
More hours, fewer weeks
Based on the most recent data, Islanders in the Charlottetown zone would have to work 175 more hours to qualify for benefits, which would run out nine weeks earlier than workers in the P.E.I. zone.
That's because the unemployment rate in the P.E.I. zone is almost twice as high as in the Charlottetown zone.
In an interview, MacKay pointed out that because the rules are based on where you live, Islanders who might work together and log the same hours could end up with different coverage, or one might not receive benefits at all if they live in the zone with the lower unemployment rate.
"There's a big gap there," in terms of the hours needed to qualify, he said, "and I think it's unfair and needs to be addressed."
Islanders in both zones rely on seasonal employment in the three main industries of farming, fishing, and tourism, he said.
"How it was done by geographical area was unfair. It should come down to the position itself.… I don't think it comes down to where you live."
Asked if switching to one zone could have a negative impact on residents in rural electoral districts represented by his PC colleagues, MacKay said "I don't think it's going to necessarily impact them."
Federal Conservative move
It was former federal Conservative cabinet minister Gail Shea who announced the move to two zones in 2014 — a move which benefited EI claimants in her riding of Egmont, and has been a perpetual election issue in P.E.I.'s other three federal ridings ever since, especially in Charlottetown.
In four years in the provincial legislature however, the topic seemed to receive little notice from members of the Liberal government of Wade MacLauchlan, with one notable exception — former Charlottetown MLA Richard Brown, who took it upon himself while a backbencher to advocate for change in Ottawa.
This week his brother Philip, now the mayor of Charlottetown, was also in Ottawa, making the same case with federal officials to return the province to one zone.
"All I'm asking — and I think the province would agree with me too — is a fair system for all Islanders," Mayor Brown said.
He said the city has asked to make a presentation in a boundary review of EI economic regions currently underway. The federal government says that review should be complete this fall.
'A lot has changed'
A provincial ministerial briefing note on the EI zones obtained by CBC through an access-to-information request makes no mention of returning the province to one zone — but does stress the importance of keeping the rural zone.
"Maintaining the P.E.I. zone is essential for the province," the document states. But it says "government would welcome increasing the number of weeks in the capital region zone to ensure all Islanders benefit equally."
That briefing note was prepared by staff in MacKay's department. It's dated May 27, 2019, just two weeks after MacKay and the rest of the Dennis King government were sworn in.
But MacKay said that wasn't his position at the time, and that "a lot has changed since May," noting in particular his quarterly meetings with the P.E.I. Federation of Labour have informed his opinion around EI zones.
Functionally, the scenario described in the briefing note, maintaining benefits in rural P.E.I. while augmenting them in the Charlottetown zone, would be very similar to what MacKay has asked Ottawa to do.
A spokesperson for Qualtrough said her office is preparing its response to MacKay's letter.
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