© Star photo by Geraldine Brophy
Marsha Crocker of Trout River discusses the impact recent changes to the federal Employment Insurance program will have on her and her family.
CORNER BROOK Marsha Crocker knew there had been changes made to the federal Employment Insurance program, but she never expected the impact it is about to have on her family.
The Trout River resident is not alone.
In May, the mother of two went to work with her husband Floyd’s lobster fishing enterprise and earned around $8,000. In the latter part of June, she took a seasonal summer job in town related to the tourism industry and earned about $5,000.
Crocker has been involved in the fishery for the last two decades, but it’s only been the last five or six years that she has left the fishery early to take the job in town. She said that later income helps her family get through the opening few weeks of the fishery after her husband’s fishing EI claim runs out in late April.
As she has been doing the past several years, Crocker recently filed her EI claim when she was laid off as the summer tourism season ended.
During a visit to Corner Brook Monday, Crocker dropped in to discuss her claim at the Service Canada office in the city. She was floored to find out that, although her claim had been processed, the amount of EI benefits she will receive this winter has been cut by more than half.
In recent years, her benefits have been around $800 every two weeks. Because of revisions to the EI system, she can now only expect a little more than $300.
The changes have to do with the different EI claims people in the fishing industry can open, compared to regular labour claims for EI benefits.
Previously, a person’s EI benefits would be based on the highest earnings from both claims. Under the new changes, anyone who works 420 hours after earning income from fishing cannot use any of that fishing income towards the calculation of their EI benefits.
“This is financially devastating,” said a bewildered Crocker as the reality of the changes began sinking in. “This is going to mean between $400 and $500 less for my family every two weeks and there is no way I can cancel the labour claim and file (for EI) on my fishing claim.”
There is one way to combine both incomes for the calculation of EI benefits: to earn income from both fishing and labour in the same week.
That is not realistic, said Crocker.
“I would have had one sleepy week because I would have been on the water at 5 (a.m.) and then went to work at labour for 10 hours, if I had known this,” she said. “It would be a 20-hour day but I would have pushed it. It’s what I would have to do under this process.”
Crocker feels she should have been better advised, whether by the federal government or the Fish, Food and Allied Workers union that represents her, about the impact working 420 hours after working in the fishery would have.
The frustration in her voice is palpable when she thinks about the lack of options she has to earn more money in the coming months.
“There is no work for me in Trout River between now and the fishery next spring,” she said. “I have two kids to take care of, so I can’t just go away to work. I don’t think we would be any better off if we did go to Alberta or somewhere to work with the cost of living there.”
Besides the Service Canada and FFAW offices, Crocker also visited the office of Gerry Byrne, the Liberal Commons member for Humber-St. Barbe-Baie Verte, while she was in Corner Brook.
She has not been the only person involved in the fishery to have contacted Byrne’s office recently. Byrne said he has been trying for the last six weeks or so to get more details on the changes made to the EI system, which he says were quietly made by the federal government.
It has only been the last 10 days that his affected constituents have come to him looking for answers and assistance.
“This is about to become a national issue,” said the MP.
Byrne said changes like the one that prohibits fishing income to be used after someone has worked 420 hours toward a labour claim have been made through regulations and not through legislation.
“The changes can happen without anybody knowing: Parliament doesn’t have to be informed and the federal government has carte blanche to do what it wants,” charged Byrne.
With the Parliament prorogued by Prime Minister Stephen Harper until Oct. 16, Byrne said there has been no way to formally question the government about these changes.
Many people involved in the fishery often take work in the outfitting industry or as carpenters once the fishing season winds down. Byrne said seasonal workers may soon begin to refuse to accept work subsequent to the fishery.
“Or they could start only taking work that is less than 420 hours or refuse shifts so they don’t reach 420 hours,” said Byrne.
Both Crocker and Byrne feel as though the changes are designed to force small boat fish harvesters out of the industry altogether.
“They are trying to get rid of the inshore fishermen,” said Crocker. “We’ve seen it, we’ve felt it, we know it, we live it. This is just another way of getting at us.”
But Crocker, who estimated the value of her family’s fishing enterprise to be around $250,000, said she will actually probably have to spend more time fishing next year and not take the summer job she enjoys doing.
“They are forcing me out of the labour market and back into the boat, while I am trying to work the other way,” she said.
The Western Star has requested interviews with the FFAW and a representative from the federal government, but no one was made available as of press time Tuesday.