Jumping through hoops for EI training

| July 11, 2003
We begin with a frustrating story about Ken B., a laid-off aircraft mechanic who, in the blunt assessment of a friend and a tough ex-Steelworker, was “jerked around” by a bureaucratic Employment Insurance system.

What really ticks off Jack Kelly, a community worker with the Toronto based Labour Education Centre, is that Ken, a middle aged man of Vietnamese origin, (his last name is left out to protect his identity) “was not treated with respect because English is not his first language.”

“They treat me worse than a child &#0151 like I donâe(TM)t know anything,” Ken told rabble. “Even if I go to the EI office and ask for a letter to tell me when the benefits end, they give me a hard time. I almost explode.”

The Labour Education Centre, affiliated with the Ontario Federation of Labour, is one of various not-for-profit employment agencies hired by Human Resources Development Canada (the federal department which administers EI) to help EI recipients return to the workforce. What are called employment assistance services (EAS) were formerly performed by internal and unionized HRDC staff before contracting-out began at the department in the late 1990s. They include needs determination for skills development and training and advice on job search.

Kelly spent 15 hours helping Ken develop a coherent proposal for subsidized training that met all the criteria under EI. It was complicated by the fact that since the late 1990s, the training component (or part two) of the employment insurance program across Canada (with the exception of Ontario) has been administered by the provinces and therefore the procedures and rules can vary from community to community. (An ongoing tension between Liberal Ottawa and Tory Queenâe(TM)s Park lies behind the fact that HRDC still runs EI training programs in Ontario.)

All Ken wanted was a 20-week upgrading course to help him maintain his technical competence and marketability as a mechanic and thereby enhance his chances of finding a new job. If he lived in New Brunswick, the support of a single provincial employment counsellor would have immediately put him into training. In New Brunswick, it is regarded as “an entitlement,” under EI, says Alain Basque, a director of the employment program and services branch for the department of training and employment development for New Brunswick.

Meanwhile in Ontario, EI recipients are obliged to go through what the staff at the Labour Education Centre describe as a humiliating means test. Ken, for instance, had to submit 14 pieces of documentation regarding the details of his family assets and income to demonstrate that he really needed a training subsidy. This process surprised him because he had assumed that like most full-time Canadian workers paying premiums to support this social insurance plan he would be receiving some financial help after an unforeseen layoff.

It turns out that both the Labour Education Centre and Seneca College, the latter hired by HRDC in Toronto as the “broker” to crunch the numbers to determine how much a training application will cost HRDC, gave the go-ahead for Ken to proceed with the course. But there was a snag. In his documentation, Ken had declared his alimony payments, but HRDC wanted something official on paper from the Ontario Attorney Generalâe(TM)s office. That meant another several weeks of waiting before a letter from the province could be obtained.

By the time HRDC finally gave its approval, it was too late for Ken to take the course. His wife had in the meantime lost her job in the SARS affected hospitality industry in Toronto, which meant a major loss of income for a family that also included two children. Because his EI benefits had run out, and the income support offered in the $5,000 training allowance (about $300 a week) was not sufficient to put enough food on the table and pay the bills, Ken had to scramble to find something else in the job market, even if it meant going outside his area of expertise.

Meanwhile, rabble received an internal HRDC document indicating that the Toronto officeâe(TM)s spending on contracted-out employment assistance services has nearly doubled since1997/98 to the tune of a little over $100 million.

One result is that training per EI recipient is being kept to a minimum of $5,000 in Toronto. The Labour Education Centre calls it “a cap,” while Jane Weldon, director of operations and initiatives at the employment programs branch for HRDCâe(TM)s Labour Market Directorate, insists that this amount is only “a guideline.”

George Kapetaneas, co-coordinator of the employment assistance services at the Labour Education Centre, says that fewer EI recipients in Toronto have been receiving subsidized training because of the rigidity of the departmentâe(TM)s requirements. Lately, he had heard that HRDC may be “relaxing” some of its rules because of outside criticism.

Rhonda Singer, a spokesperson for another non-profit agency that, like the Labour Education Centre is also on contract with the HRDC to provide employment assistance services for EI recipients, offers an explanation for HRDCâe(TM)s tougher approach in Toronto.

She says that following the depletion of funds earlier than anticipated at the Toronto office of HRDC the department has had to apply more “rigour” and raise the eligibility requirements in face of the requests for subsidized training coming in from EI recipients.

HRDC is “just trying to be more diligent with regards to paperwork and requirements,” Singer, executive director for the Scarborough based Progress Career Planning Centre, told rabble. At the same time, she understands that HRDC is re-examining the $5,000 amount for training.

Unlike the union-based Labour Education Centre where its executive director Janet Dassinger says that she and her staff act as advocates for the laid-off workers in the face of a complex and difficult EI bureaucracy, Progress Career Planning Centre makes no bones about being a “a not-for-profit business-focused organization.”

Progress is attempting to prepare EI recipients in Toronto, many of whom are new Canadians, for the demands of Canadian work culture.

“Just because we say Canadian employers really appreciate someone who has initiative, what we have learned is that from some countries they donâe(TM)t understand what initiative is. Because being a good employee means waiting until your manager tells you what to do. So, if we talk about initiative, the paradigm just isnâe(TM)t there,” says Singer.

“Many clients will come in thinking,” adds Singer, “we are going to do the research, we are going to find the job for them, we are going to do the resume for them and thatâe(TM)s not what it is about.”

This is in line with HRDCâe(TM)s approach, where Jane Weldon states, for instance, that EI recipients are being encouraged to be more independent and resourceful in terms of finding out what training might be available.

But one Scarborough-based union official Ian Shaw counters that this perspective does not recognize the reality of immigrant workers in terms of their experiences and rights.

Shaw is president of local 574 of the Canada Employment and Immigration Union, which is based in Scarborough, a major destination for immigrants coming to Canada. It is also an area filled with a lot of low wage manufacturing and service jobs.

At the front office where his members used to work and meet claimants for EI first-hand, “we used to routinely hear stories of people being told that they had to work for free for two weeks before they could be employed on a trial bias. We heard of people who didnâe(TM)t know that they had rights [as employees],” says Shaw.

Now that Shaw and his colleagues have been relegated to “paper-pushing” positions within EI at HRDC, they are seeing and hearing fewer clients with their accounts of “exploitation and lawbreaking” by some workplaces.

But as someone currently responsible for administering various employment assistance services contracts (Progress is not one of them) Shaw runs into all sorts of independent service providers, some of whom he likes philosophically and unfortunately many others that operate strictly on a commercial basis.

“Itâe(TM)s like an attitude adjustment regime that they seem to be running in these places where if you donâe(TM)t get with the program and bend over backwards to please your employer, then the hell with you,” says Shaw.

Also, the assistance providers are paid by HRDC on the number of clients who are directed back to the workforce, says Shaw. He says this can lead to the assistance providers concentrating their efforts on the most employable of the EI recipients and turning others away.

Meanwhile, Erin Gray, an assistant professor of social work at the University of Calgary is studying how these employment assistance services, skills development and training under EI are administered at the provincial level through labour market agreements with the federal government.

She finds that that the smaller percentage of people able to qualify for EI under its tough entrance requirements (estimated by the Canadian Labour Congress to be about 38 per cent of the unemployed in Canada) receive a superior range of employment services than anything that might be available to recipients of provincial social assistance or people not on EI.

Alberta is unique in allowing its social assistance recipients to access training and employment assistance services under EI. However, says Gray, these people are given fewer program options than what might be available to EI recipients.

Gray would like to see government subsidized training assistance available to all people who need it, not just those who qualify for EI.

“An unemployed person is an unemployed person &#0151 someone who wants to improve their skills, to get a good job,” she says.

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