A rider airs over the big hip at the 2013 S-Games at Revelstoke Mountain Resort.

A rider airs over the big hip at the 2013 S-Games at Revelstoke Mountain Resort.

Employment Insurance reforms target the ski bum lifestyle

Conservatives say EI reforms target abusers, but opponents say it'll hurt seasonal industries, workers and rural communities like Revelstoke

Earn your turns – and I don’t mean skinning up the hill.

That’s the message from Kootenay–Columbia MP David Wilks to Revelstoke ski bums on employment insurance.

The Times Review explored what changes to the employment insurance system mean for seasonal industries in Revelstoke, such as forestry and tourism, and found concerns about the changes implemented earlier this year, as well as uncertainty about what the effects will be.

Kootenay–Columbia MP David Wilks (Conservative) said the tightening of the EI rules was designed to “reflect better use of the EI system,” saying the changes are designed to help those who legitimately need EI and boot off those who abuse the system.

The changes divide EI applicants into several categories, including frequent applicants. Frequent applicants are required to take lower-paying jobs and travel further for work, amongst other new requirements. Some applicants are required to take jobs outside their area of training or their community.

MP Wilks was clear the changes target EI abusers. “The ones that concern me, to use a good reference, would be those that come to experience Revelstoke for its true natural splendour with skiing, come specifically to ski and while they’re there get a job so that they can ski,” Wilks said. “Once the ski season is over, go on EI until the next ski season when they could potentially find a job in Revelstoke or near to Revelstoke that would hold them over until the next ski season.

“Would it be not more prudent for someone who has only worked four months to enable themselves to try and find another source of income?” Wilks said.

Wilks said staff tracked applicants and could easily distinguish between users in industries like forestry (which is cyclical and seasonal – including the current spring break-up period) and those who abuse EI.

“We’re not expecting people to move away long distances if they can’t find jobs in their specific field, especially in rural Canada,” Wilks said.

He also described silviculture workers, such as tree planters, as “motivated” and “skilled” workers who often work the off-season. “Most people in that industry always have something else to go to.”

In response to a question whether the changes will unfairly effect rural communities, Wilks said he’d been lobbied. “When I met with the Chamber of Commerce in Revelstoke, that was one of their many concerns, was that the EI process was being abused in Revelstoke because of the type of cyclical nature that Revelstoke has with skiing.”

He also admitted staff reductions to those who help and process EI applications in this riding. “Certainly in the riding of Kootenay–Columbia, Service Canada has seen some cutbacks,” he said. “Certainly that does pose a concern for those that live in more remote areas such as Revelstoke.”

Wilks added most people access those services online these days.

Opposition MP: Unnecessary changes will harm rural, seasonal communities

BC Southern Interior MP Alex Atamanenko (NDP) attacked the EI changes, calling them unnecessary. He said they tilted the playing field away from rural communities dependent on seasonal industry towards urban centres and places with permanent employment.

“This government is demonizing ordinary Canadians who are struggling to get by, rather than addressing the problems within industries that rely on the availability of employees year-round,” Atamanenko said. “Conservative economic policy has done nothing to generate jobs in sectors that are steady, that provide a decent livelihood and that will help people stay close to communities where they live.”

He also attacked the system of home checks, where Service Canada staff visit the homes of suspected abusers to check up on them.

“Making it harder and harder to jump through the hoops is an injustice to people who have contributed to EI. Canadians count on it to help them through hard times. Having to endure house calls is absolutely degrading,” Atamanenko said.

He cited complaints from constituents who have been shut out from EI due to staff shortages and bureaucratic challenges at Service Canada. “They’re getting all sorts of pushback.

“There’s no reason to change a system that appeared to be working and keeping our rural communities stable,” he continued. “We may down the line see more of a destabilization of our communities as they scramble now because they won’t have people they normally would have. And then we’ve got temporary foreign workers coming in. It just seems that there’s upheavals happening that aren’t necessary.”

Atamanenko predicted the changes will have a big, negative effect on rural Canada.

“Families will have to move to seek some work in some other part of the country,” he said. “Spending power for many people will decrease, which will have an effect on businesses … and we might see a decrease of populations in our rural communities if people move to the larger urban areas to find work.”

Silviculture association director concerned about EI changes

Western Canada Silviculture Association executive director John Betts said the changes aren’t likely to have a great effect on seasonal workers such as tree planters, but he raises more general questions about the direction the changes signal for seasonal work.

“Quite a lot of the country is built on seasonal work,” he said. “We need to take a look at what the consequences might be of stopping that kind of technically legal, technically legitimate entitlement. If we’re going to make them ineligible for EI, we have to figure out what you’re going to replace it with. Particularly if those areas are already having difficulty recruiting and retaining workers.”

He underscored that skilled silviculture workers labour under very difficult circumstances. “It takes a commitment, it takes years of experience, you have to keep yourself fit and focused,” he said.

“I think a case can be made where seasonal work in this country is … not fully appreciated for the contribution it makes to the economy.”

Betts noted silviculture competes against the high wages of the oil and gas industry for skilled employees; new barriers to seasonal employment have consequences.

“Is it simply going to be we just start bringing in temporary foreign workers?” he asked, noting it may be an overstatement. “Is that the kind of country we want? Would we want to see the dollars that we currently pay to our seasonal workers going to Mexico or Nigeria?

“I hope that it is not a likely scenario, but it is a possible scenario,” Betts said, adding silviculture wages haven’t kept pace with inflation.

Chamber tourism worker on the fence

Tyson Andrykew is interning with the Revelstoke Chamber of Commerce this spring. He recently graduated from Thompson Rivers University where he authored a paper on EI changes as part of his marketing and human resources studies. Andrykew grew up as part of the Three Valley Gap resort, starting work on the family business before he was a teenager.

He studied the EI changes because he was interested in its effects on the resort; they traditionally struggle to find staff.

He spoke with me in his capacity as Chamber intern, not as a representative of Three Valley Gap.

When the changes were outlined in 2012, he was positive. He thought they would benefit Three Valley by creating a more stable workforce.

Now, Andrykew is on the fence. There could be positives, or negatives for tourism operators.

The rules divide EI claimants into several categories. ‘Frequent’ claimants face the biggest squeeze under the new rules. “At Three Valley that’s a lot of our staff,” he said. These candidates are forced to take bigger pay cuts and commute for longer – up to an hour – under the new rules. Infrequent claimants are given more leeway.

Andrykew is concerned that seasonal employees will no longer be able to access EI and will leave altogether; the ski bum who worked through the summer will no longer be able to access powder turns at will all winter and re-assess life in Revelstoke. Employees living in the more economically-depressed Malakwa area may not be able to find winter employment and move on.

On the up side, it may force many seasonal workers who’ve habituated to the EI break to get serious about work. “They may be required to if they still want to live here,” Andrykew said.

What does he predict? “It’s hard to say,” Andrewkew said. “It always comes down to enforcement.”

Recent media stories about quotas and door-knocks in an effort to shake EI abusers out of the rug point to a more aggressive effort to clear the roles. There are several other enforcement changes that may or may not have the desired effect.

Andrykew suggests seasonal winter and summer businesses partner human resource efforts with each other to help retain qualified staff. For example, a heli-skiing company could connect with a forestry operation to share skilled workers and avoid staff losses due to attrition.