One of my first and most profound memories as a young government employee in the early 1990s was one where we were trying to determine the ‘available’ workforce in the province. Essentially, we wanted to determine how many people would be available to work in jobs paying $30k or more. We looked at the total unemployment workforce, the seasonal workforce (assuming many would be interested in full time work), the employment rate gap (assuming that we should have at least the national level if the economy was strong enough) and those working at $12/hour or less. When we crunched all these numbers we came up with a ridiculous number of something like more than 50% of the entire current working population.
Anyway, in a meeting about this, a senior official at the department of labour told us there were “10,000 people in the Peninsula alone” that would not work year round even if it was an outstanding opportunity. He further said around the province that would be well over 50,000 people. He called them a ‘lost generation’. They had become used to seasonal work and would not change their lifestyle.
I think about this quite a bit. The availability of seasonal work is a fine idea. There are those that would like to supplement family income with just a few months of work and would like to spend the rest of the year working on other pursuits. The challenge has always been paying them EI not to work. The assumption (and it is in the rules) is that if you are collecting EI you will take a job if one comes along. The practice is different.
I raise this because I keep hearing from employers – particularly in rural NB that this issue is not getting any better and in fact may be getting worse. There is a significant cohort of people who are not interested in full time, year round work even if it pays more than they would have made on EI.
As there are more and more firms bringing in immigrants to work these jobs, I have to wonder if it is not time to seriously rethink the EI system, its incentive structure, etc. If a person is paid EI because there are no alternatives that is fine but if they are paid EI while jobs go unfilled, that is another.
Again, I want to reiterate I am not against seasonal work any more than I am against part time work. These can be important options for workers. Further, I think it would be fine to offer a pay as you go EI program where folks would pay in during their work weeks and collect during their off weeks.
But the subsidization of seasonal work by those who choose to work year round was meant to make up for a lack of work in certain communities. Now that an increasing number of those communities actually have work – and no workers to fill the jobs – we need to rethink things.
It won’t happen, however. This is too politically sensitive an issue. Even if it is hastening the decline of many communities, it remains sacrosanct.