Splitting P.E.I. into two EI zones made for 'crass political reasons,' says former Liberal MP

·4 min read
The Charlottetown EI region stretches to the North Shore.  (Government of Canada - image credit)
The Charlottetown EI region stretches to the North Shore. (Government of Canada - image credit)

The decision to split P.E.I. into two EI zones was made for "crass political reasons," and workers and employers continue to pay the price, says a former Island MP.

Wayne Easter was testifying at Senate hearing Thursday, part of the discussions on former P.E.I. Senator Diane Griffin's bill to reverse the 2014 changes and return the Island to one EI zone.

P.E.I. is now split into two zones, known as Charlottetown and Prince Edward Island, but the Charlottetown zone encompasses a huge rural area outside the capital city. Stephen Harper's Conservative government made the change, noting Charlottetown's unemployment rate was much lower than that in the rest of the province, and the change put Charlottetown in line with other provincial capitals.

Critics complained P.E.I. was too small to be split into two zones, and noted that it placed Gail Shea's riding of Egmont, the only Conservative MP for P.E.I. at the time, in a more favourable EI zone for workers.

'How did we get into this situation?'

It is harder to qualify for EI in the Charlottetown zone. Those who do qualify, also receive fewer weeks of benefits.

Laura Meader/CBC
Laura Meader/CBC

Former Malpeque Liberal MP Wayne Easter says the changes have haunted workers for eight years.

"How did we get into this situation?" Easter asked during the hearings.

"It was done for crass political reasons in 2014 by the previous administration and this administration that we currently have absolutely failed because of politics as well."

The current MP for Egmont, Liberal Robert Morrissey, has opposed changing back to a single zone.

Justin Trudeau's Liberal government, which Easter served under until his retirement last year, has not changed the province back to one zone despite calls from numerous groups and organizations, including a unanimous recommendation from a House of Commons committee last June — chaired by Liberal Charlottetown MP Sean Casey — and a request from the provincial government.

EI zones divides communities 

During Thursday's hearing, employers told Senators the two zones are making it much more difficult for employers to find workers in the Charlottetown zone.

Christian Patry/CBC
Christian Patry/CBC

With the current employment rates, workers in the Charlottetown zone have to work 665 hours and can receive 14 weeks of employment insurance.

Those outside the Charlottetown zone, in rural P.E.I., only have to work 490 hours and will get 20 weeks of benefits.

Easter said P.E.I. is a small province and the decision to split the province into two zones is unfair and makes no sense.

"Where I receive the most complaints from was the Riverdale Road area. It is the break line between zones one and two," said Easter.

"Neighbours on the opposite side of the road both worked at New Glasgow Lobster Suppers. But at the end of the season the worker in zone two qualified for EI but the neighbour across the road in zone one did not."

'Get people back to work'

The Senate will continue its work on the issue next week.

Randy McAndrew/CBC
Randy McAndrew/CBC

Even if the Senate passed Griffin's bill, it doesn't mean the federal Liberal government will even bring the bill before the House of Commons, let alone pass it and make the changes.

Bill DeBlois, president of the Greater Charlottetown Area Chamber of Commerce, said the two EI zones are hurting employers who are desperately looking for workers, especially in seasonal industries like tourism.

DeBlois made a presentation to the Senate committee on Thursday.

He said returning P.E.I. to one zone would be a step in the right direction.

But he's calling on federal government to do a full scale review into the EI program, to ensure it is meeting the needs of both workers and employers

'Something that needs to change'

"We need to focus on how we help get people back to work," said DeBlois.

"Our members say it's difficult to find people to fill job roles or stay long-term in such roles. Some pointed to the current EI program as something that needs to change to ensure that people remain on the job."

Deblois said employers have told the chamber in addition to the two EI zones, they are concerned about changes that allow students to access EI benefits while attending college or university.

"The chamber has heard from members that because of this change it's harder to find students to fill part-time jobs."

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