A move by the provincial government to change how employment assistance services (EAS) are provided through third-party agencies is not receiving universal applause.
Last Friday, the Department of Advanced Education and Skills announced that third-party groups will no longer handle EAS for employment insurance (EI)-eligible clients as of June 1. The department will take over those duties.
The same release said service providers affected will be given a three-month extension until June 30 to conclude their work.
In an interview with The Telegram, Minister Joan Shea said the move will affect approximately 40 such agencies and 226 related jobs.
The John Howard Society of Newfoundland and Labrador is among those groups that currently provide EAS. It helps former inmates readjust to life outside prison.
“We were completely taken by surprise,” said Cindy Murphy, executive director of the John Howard Society. “There was no consultation. There was no indication whatsoever that the government was contemplating this move, and this is a contract that we had for more than 30 years.”
The news release issued last Friday by the province made reference to “feedback from clients, staff and the public” in relation to its decision to change EAS.
For most of those 30 years, the John Howard Society’s contract was with the federal government, but the provincial government inherited it along with all other EAS contracts in 2009. Shea said the province was obligated to maintain those contracts until March 2012, at which point her department offered a one-year extension.
Murphy said clients served by the John Howard Society have specialized needs and require “a lot of support to help them reintegrate safely back into the workforce with their multiple barriers.”
In 2012, offices for the John Howard Society in St. John’s and Stephenville served 400 people.
Murphy expects the changes announced by the government will affect two or three positions with her organization. They were involved in employment counselling and securing funds for employment and education, among other tasks.
Those duties will now be the responsibility of staff within the Department of Advanced Education and Skills through 14 career centres and
12 satellite offices.
“That is extremely problematic in our opinion,” said Murphy, “because here you have what we think is upwards of 200 people who are providing those services across the island, who have been impacted, and all of a sudden the Department of Advanced Education and Skills is going to take on that responsibility in a hiring freeze. We just don’t understand how that’s even plausible.”
According to Shea, the move will place all employment services provided through the provincial government under one roof, metaphorically speaking.
“It’s levelling the playing field,” she said. “Making sure we have a one-stop shop.”
Shea added under the current setup, funding applications for individuals still had to come through the department for final approval.
“So even though everyone who is not EI-eligible came through the provincial system anyway, the ones who went through these contracted services had to still come back through our offices for final approval and have a worker assigned as well.”
The provincial government has already said cuts can be expected in the upcoming spring budget, but Shea said the changes announced Friday would have happened regardless.
Funds specific to programs and services for EI-eligible residents — $14 million — are made available to the province though the Labour Market Development Agreement with Ottawa.
“There is no reduction in that agreement,” said Shea. “This money will be redirected to ensure that people have access to post-secondary programs or have the financial ability to be able to prepare themselves to go back to work. So there is no budget reduction. The difference is how we deliver services.”
The NunatuKavut Community Council also raised concerns about the move by Shea’s department.
The council said, in a news release, that EAS offices in Cartwright, Port Hope Simpson, Charlottetown and St. Lewis will be lost, labelling those areas as “vulnerable and economically fragile.”
“For people to avail of opportunities which exist in Labrador, we need these services to create a level playing field so we stand some chance at getting jobs,” said council president Todd Russell. “The Department of Advanced Education and Skills has made a grave error in judgment.”
Shea said an office in Mary’s Harbour, primarily responsible for income support, will begin to provide services to EI-eligible residents in that region.
Liberal MHA Andrew Parsons said the move by Shea’s department appears to be more about eliminating jobs than providing a better service.
“These agencies have been working to help thousands of people across the province find work to support their families for decades,” said Parsons in a news release.
“Minister Shea isn’t just eliminating the middle man; she’s taking the axe to workers who play a vital role sustaining economic development in our communities.”
With files from Ashley Fitzpatrick