Seasonal Employees Won’t Qualify for Employment Insurance

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By John Francis

It was a lovely, sunny afternoon, the final Sunday in April, and Tobermory Harbour was very quiet, the only traffic –  a local couple walking their dog.

Millions of dollars worth of commercial boats sit on cribs along the south wall of the harbour. The crane that will put them in the harbour is not expected anytime soon. Moored along the harbour’s north wall are tourboats worth many millions more. 

Millions of dollars worth of commercial boats sit on cribs along the south harbour wall in Tobermory.

Ringing the harbour are tens of millions worth of hotels, stores and restaurants. Of them, only Peacocks Foodland and the Liquor Store are fully engaged.

Around the corner, the OSTC ferry dock is empty. A formal announcement concerning the 2020 season is expected by the end of April.

No one knows for sure when commerce will return to Tobermory. But nobody is holding their breath.

Thus far the federal government has made some encouraging noises, offering a $40,000 loan to businesses, promising substantial help with payroll and offering support for workers who are laid off or whose Employment Insurance has run out.

But $40,000 doesn’t go very far when you’re trying to steer a multi-million dollar business through a period — possibly an entire year — with no revenue whatsoever.

It will take a lot more than encouraging noises.

Municipal Councillor Smokey Golden has sympathy for those business owners, but she is even more concerned about their seasonal employees. She has lobbied, literally for decades, for more fairness in the Employment Insurance system. When the pandemic struck, she realized immediately that this that this could make a bad situation even worse.

She has pushed our MP, Alex Ruff, to demand better support for seasonal workers and she has tried to get the municipality involved as well. She is pleased about the CERB program that Canada has put in place to support the unemployed but feels that it is not nearly enough.

The employment insurance program has to be supportive of seasonal workers, she explains, not just long-term workers who get laid off. “It’s not like they’d be wasting tax money — Employment Insurance is self funded by employee contributions.”

But this year is different. A few months of CERB will get people through the spring, she agrees. “But I’m a little worried — what’s going to happen in the fall?” People receiving CERB will not be able to apply for Employment Insurance in the fall, she explains: “They’re not going to have the hours.” She lets that sink in. You normally need around 900 hours of work to qualify for Employment Insurance in winter and even then it usually runs out before people start back to work in spring. This fall, people will not qualify at all.

Between the tourism businesses and the people they normally employ, the Bruce Peninsula is going to need a lot of help from various levels of government and not just for two or three months. It will be at least a year before our economy gets back to normal.