If you want to build a business case for implementation of a guaranteed income take note of the growing number of Island children stranded either on the way to, or from, school. A lack of substitute bus drivers is forcing schools to do the once unthinkable ... tell Island parents to figure out transportation for themselves, even on short notice.
‘Last year it was bad, but this year is really bad,’ a union representative told CBC. It’s not likely to improve anytime soon. There are only about 50 substitute drivers spread across the province, a small number considering 20,000 children need to get to an Island school daily.
Drivers earn $17.80 an hour for five hours work, certainly not enough to get rich on, but by provincial standards reasonable. Given the awkwardness of the hours, it’s difficult to manage a second job, which explains why bus drivers were often older men. In recent years women have assumed an ever more important role.
The Public Schools Branch, like every Island business, faces a demographic reality: Our population is aging, especially in rural areas and competition for employees is increasing. It doesn’t matter if your industry is lobster fishing or retail, you are already feeling the pinch.
By national standards Prince Edward Island’s job vacancy rate of 1.9 per cent is the envy of the country. It still means there are 900 unfilled jobs. Our provincial unemployment rate, which fluctuates during the year, hovers at just over eight per cent, historically a very low number, but one that equates to more than 8,000 Islanders receiving EI benefits during the year.
For more than 40 years provincial and federal governments have used Employment Insurance as a crass arm of economic development policies. Rather than build year-round economies, political masters offered just enough government work to guarantee EI benefits, which subsidized community economies for the remainder of the year. The political loyalty scheme worked when there were enough employees to go around, but not today.
Fish plants, construction, retail outlets, restaurants, sales organizations, professional offices all need employees. It would be great to snap our fingers and magically make our population, especially rural, larger and younger. Reality is there are no magic bullets for our demographic challenge. But one component of any potential solution is to remove the punitive nature of EI that rewards lack of initiative over enterprise and initiative. Over the years minor improvements have been made to encourage work outside of the EI system. Reforms have not gone nearly far enough. If someone collecting EI were interested in a substitute school bus job, it would not take long before income would be clawed back.
That’s a disincentive to work. If we want people to look beyond EI we need to make it less an either/or decision.
Some argue for making EI even more difficult to receive if unfilled jobs exist. It’s difficult to force anyone to take any job, especially without first considering variables such as salary, distance to the job, hours and skills required. But the frustration of employers is palpable and real.
The more positive path forward could incorporate some form of guaranteed annual income offering a modest base while encouraging job exploration. It’s not without risk, but it could make our communities and businesses stronger while maintaining an individual’s right to make decisions for themselves.
We all benefit if the standard of living increases for those at the bottom of the socio-economic pole. Timing may be right. Politicians are scared to talk publicly about changing the EI system, even though they see the impact. The politics of EI runs deep on PEI. But the King government is showing greater enthusiasm for a guaranteed income than its predecessor, and federal officials are speaking about the concept in more positive terms.
Given our size, demographic and seasonal economic dependence, PEI makes a perfect petri dish. Then maybe we could worry less about finding bus drivers and focus more on lifting people up.
Paul MacNeill is Publisher of Island Press Limited. He can be contacted at email@example.com