Seasonal workers protest EI changes in Atlantic Canada

CUPE and other Island workers' unions organized the rally (CBC)

Busloads of seasonal workers arrived from across P.E.I. to protest changes to the Employment Insurance program.

They set up outside of Conservative cabinet minister Gail Shea's office in Summerside Saturday afternoon.

With many seasonal jobs over for the year, about 200 people were demanding action from Shea, the federal Revenue Minister Gail. CUPE and other Island workers' unions organized the rally.

The unions are protesting recent changes to EI, including a decision by the federal government not to renew an insurance pilot program designed to help people living in high unemployment areas.

"The Harper agenda is to divide P.E.I., divide Nova Scotia, divide our communities, towns and our cities and tell people that we are lazy. Well listen, I am not lazy, I work a part-time job and I get the wonderful EI," said Paulette Halupa.

In early August, Human Resources and Skills Development Minister Diane Finley announced changes to the "working while on claim pilot program" for EI recipients who find part-time work while still collecting benefits.

It replaced the previous system that clawed back claims once the part-time wages exceeded 40 per cent of benefits, or $75 a week, whichever was greater.

The government felt the old system discouraged Canadians from accepting more available work to earn wages beyond that threshold.

The new pilot program reduced the clawback on new earnings to 50 per cent, but kicked in with the first dollar earned, not at 40 per cent.

The effect was that claimants who found only a little part-time work wound up penalized by the new system, while those who worked longer hours and at higher pay could keep more of their earnings.

The protesters said the full slate of EI changes set for the new year will hurt Islanders.

"I think I proved myself the past 13 years by taking a part-time job. And now by taking that part-time job, I'm not only being penalized, I'm being cut back half my wages," said seasonal worker Roger Byers.

Interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae joined the protesters. His party had called on all members of Parliament to visit and see the effects the EI changes could have on Atlantic Canadians.

"It's not people who don't want to work year round, it's simply the jobs are not there," he said.

The EI protests didn't just manifest outside Shea's office. An anti-poverty coalition on P.E.I. has launched a social media campaign in an effort to spread the word on how changes to EI are affecting people across the country.

The PEI Working Group for a Livable Income is asking Canadians to tweet their EI stories, along with the hashtag #notlazy.

The group has also started a Twitter account under the same name.

"The more voices the better the better and the more voices in more kinds of forums the better. Social media's not for everyone, a rally's not for everyone," Jane Ledwell, a spokeswoman for the group, said. "So the more kinds of places we can give people — a spot to park their experience, to have their voice heard — the better."

Ledwell said her group chose the tag Not Lazy in an effort to dispel the notion that EI recipients don't want to work.

The group is hoping to influence future EI changes previously outlined by the Stephen Harper government.

Finley's office defended the changes Saturday saying the government is focused on job creation.