17260336582_622579da09_hInvestment in infrastructure may be keeping Edmonton out of EI benefits. Photo Credit: Bren Smith, courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons.

By Nicholas L. Hobson 

A young Edmonton father is left wondering, “why?” as debt and bills pile up and resumes go unanswered.

As questions and controversy arise from the federal budget’s exclusion of Edmonton in the EI extensions, laid off workers are left looking for new ways to feed their families.

Michael R. Andrews spends most of his days alternating between scouring the web for job possibilities and bi-weekly trips to the Edmonton Alberta Works Centre to scrap up any extra cash he can for bills and food.

The former heavy-duty mechanic lost his job in late 2015 after dropping pricse of oil set the industry into a tailspin and job-loss numbers through the roof. Andrews admits he transferred very quickly from searching for other jobs in his field, to looking for anything in hopes of funding the education for a new career. He has been on the Federal Employment Insurance plan since he lost his job, but with Edmonton being left out of the new budget’s EI extensions, time is running out.

“I’d like to think that something will kick-start the industry,” says Andrews, “but judging from the news and our government not being very transparent with what the plans are for this country’s oil and gas workers, it’s been looking like I have to start looking at other careers, not even holdover jobs.”

“And you can see from people like me, people who are struggling to find work in any field, that it is such an important industry in this part of the country.”

Alberta has lost over 10,000 jobs since January alone, on top of the 19,600 jobs lost in 2015 according to Statistics Canada report published in mid-January. The first federal budget of the newly elected Trudeau government was announced on March 22 and granted extensions to current EI benefits for the majority of Alberta, with the sole region left out of the plan being Edmonton.

The budget comes out at an awkward time for the city. Edmonton’s reported 6.8 per cent unemployment rate fell short of the required 7.3 per cent, but also sees the city in the middle of a huge downtown reconstruction effort. With the construction of the new arena set to be complete by next fall, many politicians and organizations have begun calling on Trudeau and the Liberal Party to make amends for a city that is still seeing job-loss numbers pile up.

With everyone from Premier Rachel Notley and Mayor of Edmonton Don Iveson to Edmonton Food Bank executive director Marjorie Bencz questioning why Edmonton was left out, the Prime Minister has remained consistent with his reasoning throughout. Even when travelling to Alberta to discuss the new budget and address questions about his governments perceived “subjective” approach to EI, Trudeau has remained firm in saying that employment insurance has always been broken down by region, and benefits are granted to those regions that have unemployment levels above the national average. Edmonton is still beneath that number.

“We have established 12 regions across the country that have been identified as being hardest hit and that’s where we are giving five more weeks of EI,” said Trudeau last week in an interview with Edmonton radio station 630 CHED.

“Three of the four regions in Alberta are getting that help,” he said. “Edmonton, right now, is doing better than those places.”

While the political reaction in Edmonton has been one of disappointment, as Ottawa continues to recite the same reason for the benefits exclusion, there are many key factors in the future of Edmonton’s economy that have been overlooked by both sides. Factors that Andrews has been experiencing for months now.

“Some of the questions I have mostly had to do with how the government is listing my type of employment. I worked for a contracting company and would travel all over the province for jobs, but since my home address is in Edmonton, I get left out of the extension plan,” he says, later adding, “my company had people who lived up north working with us too, and they’re telling me that they do get those benefits.”

The general response has been that Edmonton is hurting, but not as much of the other parts of the province. There are a couple reasons for this, namely the current downtown development, and annual road construction that happens every summer, but both of these are generally short-term projects enlisting seasonal employees. Whether the new arena and downtown projects finish and a new wave of unemployed labourers hit the market, changes made to Edmonton’s EI benefits are yet to be seen.

Yet the budget itself is not simply snubbing Edmonton. Trudeau did spend a good portion of his Edmonton trip highlighting the portions of his bill that positively affect Edmonton and its EI recipients.

“The enhancements we’ve made to EI will address some of the issues in the entire country, including in Edmonton,” said Trudeau in his 630 CHED interview. “We’ve shortened the waiting period from two weeks to one, we’ve made it easier for re-entrants and new entrants to the job market to access EI, and we’ve strengthened the work sharing program.”

Trudeau also said, “on top of that our budget is investing in infrastructure that Don Iveson has been asking for, and it’s putting money into the pockets of families with the Canada-Child benefit. So there are a lot of things that we are doing for people in Edmonton that will make a big difference.”

Andrews, and many others like him, is hoping that difference is felt soon as he continues his daily job hunt. Lineups at Alberta Works Centres in the city have been over run with clients, and oftentimes too lightly staffed. Open job advertisements might get 500 pairs of eyes on them within an hour of posting, and the limited financial resources have many coming to last minute resorts such as selling their stuff, or coming as early as three in the morning to work share programs. Many more are demanding immediate action from the Federal Government.

“Oh, I’ve been there,” said Andrews referring to lineups at the Alberta Works. “The worst thing is sitting there before the sunrises and not knowing if you’ll get picked up for the day. Especially right now. There’s a lot riding on a little income right now, ill tell you that.”

EI has been a major factor in putting food on his family’s table, says Andrews, a husband and father of a three-year-old son. An uncertain future awaits him, and with the windows to an old career closing, getting started from scratch in a new one is proving to be a daunting task.

Income support is offered to Canadians who have exhausted their Employment Insurance, and are unable to find work, or physically unfit. Alberta Works saw a 19.8 per cent jump in caseloads this past year, though that number does not include total office visits.

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