Caught off guard by changes to the employment insurance program, seasonal workers and their employers are still digesting what impact the new legislation will have.
The changes, introduced by the Harper Conservatives on Thursday, will impact all jobless Canadians who apply for benefits, but will hit so-called repeat claimants the hardest.
Those in the landscape, forest and construction industries contacted by The Daily News on Friday hadn’t heard of the changes, and were mystified as to why the government would pursue it.
Almost all of the 14 employees Brent Bylsma employs at Culture Care Landscaping are laid off for the winter but return in the spring after no more than three or four months off.
This has been the case for the 11 years Bylsma has operated his business. He even introduced snow removal as a service this last winter so he could keep more people employed, he said. None of his workers are out of work more than 16 weeks.
He said the majority of his staff finds work during the winter.
The new regulations create three categories of unemployed with a sliding scale of expectations for jobs they must accept depending on how often they have collected benefits in the past, and the length they are on EI.
In most circumstances, people will need to take an available job that is within an hour's commute of their home — longer in some places, such as big cities, where average commutes are longer.
In some cases, the unemployed are expected to find similar work even if it’s at a reduced rate of pay. Bylsma said this could be tough for people in a specialized industry like his.
“There’s no landscaping in the winter time unless they can get a job at a garden centre, and they’ve already laid off most of their people too,” said Bylsma. “There are no similar jobs.”
The same holds true in the construction industry. Brian Hayashi, president of the Kamloops branch of the Canadian Homebuilders Association, said many skilled builders look outside the city during the off-season. Many head to the oil patch.
He believes the government is jumping the gun. His crews worked year-round during the last economic boom. He said it’s only during the recent downturn that there hasn’t been enough work to keep people going.
“During the last boom they were scraping ice off the ground to dig basements,” said Hayashi.
The majority of staff at the Kamloops and provincial fire centres are seasonal employees. Fire information officer Kayla Pepper said personnel are still determining how big an impact the EI changes will have on her profession.