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Peace Region EI claims up again, but do the numbers tell the full story?

Changes to EI benefits aimed at helping areas hit by the oil downturn raise new questions about unemployment assistance
Hundreds of unemployed oilpatch workers revved their engines in support of the province's liquefied natural gas industry at a truck rally in Fort St. John earlier this month. New employment insurance rules are raising questions about whether benefits are reaching enough people in the beleaguered gas patch.

More than 600 people in Fort St. John and 300 people in Dawson Creek are drawing employment insurance benefits, according to new data from Statistics Canada. But to unemployed people scraping by in the natural gas sector, those numbers look deceptively low. 

Changes to EI benefits aimed at helping areas hit by the oil downturn are raising new questions about whether government unemployment assistance is reaching enough people in the beleaguered oilpatch.  

Six hundred-and-forty people in Fort St. John and 300 people in Dawson Creek were on EI in January—nearly double the number of recipients at the same time last year, according to data released March 24.

Alan Yu, organizer of the FSJ for LNG campaign and truck rally, said he suspects the actual number of people out of work in the oilpatch is higher. 

For one, the numbers likely don't include self-employed contractors who have seen work dry up, Yu said, adding these workers won't have necessarily been laid off.  

"A lot of (independent contractors) are really complaining—I've been hearing them left and right," said Yu, who programmed two-way radios used in the oilpatch before being laid off in January. 

However, Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL), said the idea that a large number of independent contractors don't qualify for EI is a misconception, saying those contractors make up a "very small group" of the oilpatch workforce.   

He said the biggest problem with the EI system continues to be eligibility requirements, which are based on regional unemployment rates over the previous year. In regions with low unemployment, workers must put in more hours to qualify for benefits than in regions where unemployment is consistently high. 

"The fact that cities like Fort St. John and Fort McMurray had low unemployment a year ago shouldn't have any bearing on eligibility requirements for employment insurance now," McGowan said. "The fact their (oil and gas) sector used to be a booming one is cold comfort." 

He said that at the start of the most recent recession, only 40 per cent of unemployed Canadians qualified for EI—rates that were lower in B.C. and Alberta because of workers left out by boom and bust cycles.  

The Liberal government's first budget includes some reforms to EI, highlighting 12 economic regions including Northern B.C. suffering "sharp and sustained unemployment shocks." In those regions, the length of time workers are eligible for benefits will be extended, while the number of on-the-job hours required for a person to qualify for EI will be lowered.  

The changes "go some distance to addressing structual problems in the EI program" that "unfairly exclude workers in the resource sector, and especially the energy sector." 

"The federal Liberals have reduced some of that inequality between regions, but they haven't eliminated it entirely," McGowan added. 

He said the AFL believes workers who pay into EI should be eligible for benefits "regardless of where they live."  

"An unemployed worker is an unemployed worker," he said. "They all just as deserving of support from a plan they've payed into." 

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