National News

Most claimants lose appeals over EI benefits

By Lee-Anne Goodman, The Canadian Press

OTTAWA - The plight of jobless Canadians denied employment insurance benefits hasn't improved under the federal government's new social-security tribunal during the first year of its existence, documents show.

The general division of the tribunal made decisions on 1,075 employment insurance appeals from April 1, 2013 — its first day of operation — until mid-March of this year.

Of those appeals, 866 of the original rulings to deny employment insurance benefits to claimants were upheld, including 71 "late appeals refused," according to documents obtained under freedom-to-information legislation and provided to The Canadian Press.

Only 209 decisions were overturned, amounting to an appeal dismissal rate of just over 80 per cent. That's marginally higher than the rate in previous years under the old regime, according to government data.

Neil Cohen of the Community Unemployed Help Centre in Winnipeg says he expects the dismissal rate could grow even higher under the new tribunal.

"This is a system that wasn't designed to work — it works very well for the government, but not for average Canadians," he said. "It has deterrents built right into it, components that discourage claimants from participating."

For example, Cohen said, three people — an employee representative, an employer representative and a chairperson — have been replaced in the new system by one Conservative government appointee.

As well, the majority of hearings on EI appeals are now held via teleconference or video conference, not in person.

"When the person's there, sitting in front of you, it's a lot easier to assess credibility. It's like a job interview — most people would far prefer to do the interview in person rather than having someone decide their fate over a computer screen or a telephone," Cohen said.

The tribunal was created with the goal of providing a more efficient appeal process for EI, Canada Pension Plan and old-age security decisions. The Conservatives said the new system, which replaced several boards comprised of hundreds of part-time employees, would save taxpayers $25 million annually.

The 80 per cent dismissal rate came in the months following the Conservative government's contentious overhaul of the Employment Insurance system last year.

Starting in January 2013, people collecting employment insurance faced stricter, more complex rules for keeping their benefits, with the goal of getting unemployed workers back into the workforce sooner.

The new regulations encouraged unemployed workers to take available jobs fairly close to home, even if they paid less than their previous work.

As always, EI claimants were required to be engaged in a "reasonable job search" to find suitable employment. But under the new rules, the search has to involve researching job opportunities, preparing a resume, registering for job banks, attending job fairs, applying for jobs and undergoing competency evaluations.

Unions and opposition MPs have accused the Conservatives of unduly punishing seasonal workers and Maritimers.

The social security tribunal has been straining under a growing backlog of 10,000 outstanding appeals. The tribunal was seriously under-staffed its first year, with several full-time positions remaining vacant until last month.

There are fewer than 70 full-time appointees on the tribunal — several of whom donated money to the Conservative party, public records show.

Follow Lee-Anne Goodman on Twitter @leeanne25

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