Cutting holes in the safety net — on purpose

Russell
Russell Wangersky
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It’s only 14 words, not too much to read, but just like a picture’s worth 1,000 words, this sentence is worth a good few, too.

“For those of you who haven’t claimed EI. Don’t, it’s not worth the hassle.”

That’s a line from a social media posting on Monday, from a young man between jobs and looking to make a claim on the insurance he’s paid into for years. And it’s far from the only one.

You hear the stories every day: workers on medical leave, all the papers in order, signed sealed and delivered, who don’t wind up getting benefits until after they’ve returned to work. Others try and try to sort out claims, but can’t even get through to a human being to sort out their issues for weeks on end. Cheques that take months to arrive, while arrears pile up in rent, mortgage payments and on credit card statements.

This, at a time when it should be simpler: almost every scrap of the EI system could be handled quickly and accurately on secure computer links, and the only time there would be even more than the slightest hiccup would be when ex-employee and ex-employer had differing versions about just what had happened when the job ended.

Other than that, it could be completely automatic.

But there’s nothing automatic about it, and the more you hear about the people who have fallen through the cracks, the more obvious it is that the federal government knows full well that the cracks are there, and that it likes those cracks just fine.

It all looks like a lesson that the federal government has actually managed to take from business, more particularly from the actual insurance business: drag your feet long enough, put enough hurdles in the way, and a good proportion of people will get fed up and give in, even if they are legitimately owed benefits.

Make it hellish enough, and almost anyone will walk away.

It may be a pragmatic way to save a few bucks.

It’s also theft. The federal government has shown that, when there is a surplus in the EI account, it’s quite willing to take that money and apply it to the federal debt.

In other words, it is willing to take money it has no right to — benefits that, through sheer delay and blunt-force intransigence, it has stolen from its rightful owners.

If there was ever a place where a class-action lawsuit would be worthwhile, this would be it: hordes of people out small amounts of money due to delays, deliberate staff shortages and manufactured technicalities, money that it would be almost senseless to fight for in court by themselves. It is an area where the government deserves a good sharp kick in whatever section of the anatomy it is that controls accountability.

But it doesn’t seem like the government will get that kick, because, in the end, it controls the legislation involved.

Benefit periods have been shortened, rules about travelling distances to available work have been applied, and, pretty much across the board, a government with a distaste for the social safety net has done its part to shrink what that net covers wherever it can.

The legislation was never particularly clear; now it’s muddier than ever, but without the people to guide you through the process.

You can’t blame someone for saying it’s not worth the hassle to fight for what they’re owed, not after weeks or months of blather. But you can be rightfully disgusted with a government that uses its overwhelming power to essentially extort money it owes to people who are without the power to fight back effectively.

It’s holes in that safety net cut by a government that just doesn’t care who falls through.

Russell Wangersky is The Telegram’s news

editor. He can be reached by email at rwanger@thetelegram.com.

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