The EI Conundrum

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Would some Newfoundlanders rather collect Employment Insurance (EI) than work?

This question lurks the dark corridors of the Newfoundland psyche, occasionally wandering into the open, where it is greeted with howls of indignation and chased immediately back to the shadows.

Last month, the Newfoundland and Labrador Employers’ Council (NLEC) let the ogre loose, by releasing the findings of a membership survey.

According to Corporate Research Associates, 60 per cent of the 111 NLEC members who responded stated that an employee had asked for a layoff in order to receive EI benefits. As well, 41 percent of employers reported an employee turning down a job offer due to eligibility for EI benefits, and 32 percent said current EI rules make it harder to find employees.

Here’s a link to news coverage from ‘The Telegram’ about the NLEC survey:

Immediately, voices were raised in protest, dismissing the survey’s findings as a predictable and contrived attack on labour (and the full spectrum of opinion on this issue is evident in the comments section, under the above article).

“I really have a problem with these kinds of things that they get on with, over and over and over again. I find it insulting and derogatory to the working people of our province,” said Lana Payne, President of the Federation of Labour, in ‘The Telegram’ story. “So we’ve got the Employers’ Council of Newfoundland and Labrador once again attacking the work ethic of the people of Newfoundland and Labrador, the workers of our province, when every other jurisdiction in the country is coming here to hold job fairs. They’re crying out for Newfoundlanders and Labradorians. Well, why do you think that is? It’s because we have a tremendous work ethic, we bring skills to the job. I just find it astounding that this local crowd can’t seem to recognize that, and yet everybody else in the world understands about what we bring to the job and to the workplace.”

I have tremendous respect for Lana and understand that she is obliged to defend the labour movement. She is also a friend of mine. However, I disagree on this issue. Yes, there are some great workers from this province, who are in demand across the country. But there are also people for whom EI has become the career objective – they work not to build a career, but to earn enough insurable weeks. They are a minority, I expect, but their numbers are large enough to show up in the NLEC survey.

I don’t blame people for working in seasonal industries. I also can understand why a person would turn down work, especially short-term work, because the employer didn’t provide insurable weeks. But there is a segment of the workforce who exist solely to manipulate the system solely to collect EI.

I think we all have stories – not hearsay, but firsthand experiences – with people whose only career ambition is to earn enough weeks to get back on EI. I’m not saying it’s prevalent in the province, but I know it happens.

Several years ago, I met a business person who made a casual remark about this very problem. I asked if he would be willing to talk on the record. He agreed, we did the interview, and I wrote the entry. Then he started getting nervous, and asked if he could review the text before I posted it.

I knew what was coming next. He read his words, and realized that running the item would be, shall we say, fatal to his interests in the local market. (His company was not located in St. John’s.) So I agreed to hold the piece indefinitely.

Well, that time has come. The business is no longer in operation, so I have decided to run the item now. To be fair to the person I spoke to, I will not divulge his name, or that of the company. (I will call him “John,” which is not his real name.) I have also removed all identifying details from the quotes. I will only reveal that it was a company with more than 15 employees.

“A major problem for us has been that quite a few people prefer to find ways to get on EI, as opposed to working for a full year,” John told me. “That’s the only negative we have in our operation. It’s a drawback and something that has become a cultural thing. You are into generations of people who live this way. I had one person who told me their father thought they were stupid for working all year round when they didn’t have to.”

In his hiring experience in this province, John says there are two kinds of people. “There are those who want to work and have a career, and those who will only work long enough to receive EI. And that’s been a significant issue with us. They don’t tell us up front what their plans are, but then they quit when they have enough weeks. They often quit by getting a doctor’s slip, which is quite easy in many cases. That’s caused us a lot of difficulty over the years. We figure we could be twice as good as we are now if, in fact, we had people who were serious about working.”

John said the system rewards a poor work ethic, while those who do want to work pay for it. “I think it is something that is very damaging throughout Atlantic Canada, but even moreso in Newfoundland and Labrador. I mention this to people at HRDC, and everyone acknowledges it, but it seems no one wants to take it on.”

The problem, John says, is a generational one that has been inculcated over time, as part of the culture. “When there’s a nice heavy snow over the weekend it is amazing how many can’t come to work on Monday,” he said. “They’re all off on their snow machines. And it’s almost all guys. That’s a big problem for us. It’s an integrity issue, I’m afraid. A lot of people have the attitude that, ‘well, it’s someplace I have to go to earn money.’ That’s the definition of a job. But very few stop to consider how what they are doing is going to help or hurt the company. A lot of them expect a raise just for being there long enough, whether or not they are doing a good job or if the company is making money. It doesn’t enter their head, whether a raise is affordable or deserved.”

The situation needs to be confronted by the people of this province and not swept under the carpet, John added.

“Things will change only when the people of the province want it to change,” he said. “When there’s enough people speaking out. In other places, it’s embarrassing to not be working – there’s something wrong with you if you can’t get and hold a job – whereas in this province there’s no stigma at all. It’s even like a badge of honour.”

I know John’s remarks will generate criticism. That always happens when someone dares question the status quo. However, John cannot be dismissed as an outsider, firing potshots from a tower in Toronto. His observations are based on direct experience gleaned from years of hiring within the provincial labour market. We need to debate his points, rather than attack the messenger.

I was gobsmacked the first time I encountered the “10-42 syndrome,” as it was known back then. The year was 1978, and I was working on a survey crew with the Department of Highways. That year, a new person started around the same time I did. Jimmy didn’t say much, and kept to himself.

Then, one day, he was gone. I asked the crew chief where he was.

“Oh, he quit. He got his stamps,” was the reply. This was a job that paid fairly well, and resulted in a lay-off at the end of the road-building season. But that was too many weeks for Jimmy, who quit as soon as he had his “stamps.” The boss was not happy, which meant Jimmy wouldn’t get called back in the spring, but so what? He’d find something else, when he had to.

When I worked at ‘The Sunday Express’, back in the early nineties, we received a call one Saturday afternoon from the distraught manager of a new business on the province's west coast. He had just hit his first 10 weeks of operation (if I recall correctly) and came to work to discover that all of his employees – his entire staff – had quit because they “had their stamps,” leaving him with a hotel full of guests but no workers to service them.

I should emphasize that not everyone is cheating the EI system. There is nothing wrong with taking on contractual work, then accessing the EI system to tide you over while you seek out your next job. Even seasonal workers will put in a good effort as long as the work is there. But those who quit a job, even a high-paying one, after getting the minimum weeks to qualify for EI, well, that’s where I have an issue.

The problem is out there, and it is real. Can we talk about it? 

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Recent comments

  • Diane
    May 26, 2015 - 10:56

    Those days of being able to collect EI benefits after resigning from a job without a thoroughly-researched 'approval' process by the EI Commission, are long gone. Employers, on the other hand, are free to fire a temporary worker at any time with or without just cause. As an older woman who cannot currently afford to retire, I consider myself fortunate to obtain even temporary work, and yet I am labeled a 'repeat offender, er, claimant' when I must again apply for EI benefits (from an insurance plan to which I involuntarily contributed). And yet these repeat lay-offs (excuse me for even trying to remain employed) are subject to this figurative 'wrist-slapping' by the EI Commission. I must now accept any job offer, even if temporary and paying less than $13/hour, despite my having earned more than $22/hour on an ongoing basis in prior years. There may well be a percentage of the population in NL (or anywhere else in Canada) that abuses this insurance plan, but I highly doubt the number is anywhere near high enough to impose any additional (and punitive) restrictions. Oh, and by the way, the same week I was given the boot, a summer student was hired to perform the duties I had.

  • What does this have to do with the media
    July 15, 2011 - 09:33

    When's Geoff announcing his Liberal nomination?

  • Mike
    July 14, 2011 - 18:08

    This is a very thought provoking piece Geoff. However it seems to lack a current day balance. Lotto 10/42 had its roots in the Fishing industry in small communities where most times that was all the work there was. Seasonal at best. We are not alone in having people who milk a system to their benefit for time off just as we are not alone when it comes to people who abuse social services. What appears to have been overlooked also is the quality of the employer many times. All too many times the employers had little or no concern for their employees and worked them to the bone for meanial wages. I think that as a province we are now past accepting the label of having an EI connundrum. At least not one that any other Province does not have. Good article though.

  • Tim
    July 14, 2011 - 14:13

    "John's" comments may be criticized, but in reality they are thoughtful and balanced, recognizing that there are people who do not exploit the system. His comments seem based on first hand experience as well, which is important. It wouldn't be suprising if Lana Payne was the first in line to criticize "John", essentially shooting from the hip in the same way she accuses the Employer's Council of doing. Her attitude is always very negative and only feeds an ongoing vindictive tone between union-management. I guess she has her personal interests at stake as well. "John" hit the nail on the head when he said the problem will persist as long as it is an underlying attitude among the people.

  • JT
    July 14, 2011 - 10:35

    Basically, it's a sense of entitlement which these EI abusers suffer from. It's the same mentality with those who feel that they should have a K-12 school in their little community even though they don't have the child population to support it, or people who feel they should be allowed to drive their quad on the road.....and on it goes.

  • Doug Long
    July 13, 2011 - 10:52

    Yes Geoff, we have both kinds of workers and after working at the St. John's Tax Centre for 25 years I have certainly seen both. For a large part of the Taxation Centre's work force, the employment is seasonal with many workers starting in February and March and finishing up in May. These workers have an excellent work ethic and they put in a full day's production each and every day. The work is production oriented work and we have been fortunate to have motivated and skilled workers returning to the Tax Centre each year. Some of these workers are happy when the work dries up in May - June so they can go home to draw they Employment Insurance income payments and enjoy their summer and Fall. Many, I believe most of theses workers, would rather continue working year around - permanent. These workers ask to be put on lists of call-in staff for other projects. They also are eager to look for openings for permanent positions. These very interested and dedicated people continually look for the big prize while working each year as a seasonal worker and the big prize is a year round, permanent job. Yes we no doubt have both types of workers at the Tax Centre and we also have them at the fish plants, department stores and on production lines but I honestly believe that the majority would be ever so thankful to hook a full time, permanent job that they can be proud of.