Alberta is being hit hard with the decline in oil and the unemployment rate is climbing. Many Canadians are being denied access to support during this poor economic time. This is just one of the many stories of families struggling during this economic downfall.
Our alarm went off at 5:30am. It seemed like we had just gone to sleep, wait we did, we were feeding two babies til 1:00am. But my husband and I had gotten an early morning babysitter so we could swallow our pride for the 3rd week in a row and were headed to the Calgary Alberta Works Office to try and apply for Income Support. The office opens at 8:15am but we learnt after the first few days that you needed to be there by at least 6am to get an appointment to have your situation assessed. We were feeling lucky as when we arrived at 6:04am we were 8th in line. Usually they only took between 10-12 people a day. We were ready to suck it up and wait 2 freezing hours to finally get some help.
We took turns waiting in line and warming up in the vehicle. I thought about what had brought us to this point. 2 years prior we found out that we were expecting baby number two, it took us for quite a surprise and threw us a definite curveball in our life plan. I had already suffered from severe anxiety and this news was tough to swallow. My work suffered, my sanity suffered and I was grateful when my doctor thought it best to go on sick leave before my maternity leave as she could see my mental health was struggling. I had only ever used EI services once before – for maternity leave with my first child – and payments are 55% of your normal wage. Sick leave is the same so having a reduction in wages sooner than expected did take a toll on us. But our baby boy arrived healthy and happy and we were getting into a nice routine when 2 months later we found out I was pregnant again…how on earth was this possible?? We did the math and baby three was conceived 3 days before my husband’s vasectomy. Well, isn’t that just a kicker.
Because I was already on maternity leave I wouldn’t be entitled for benefits when the new baby arrived. My husband and I talked about it and he would be able to support us and when the time came I would be able to work part-time and we would be able to make ends meet.
He works in the aircraft industry and was working for a company that continued to cut corners. They insisted he sign off on work – even though the plane wasn’t up to safety standards. He wasn’t comfortable doing this because should anything happen, it would be his signature that okayed it. After repeated incidents like this he chose to leave his position as he couldn’t work for a company that was willing to jeopardize its passengers lives on saving a few dollars. He had another job lined up and things should have been fine.
Unfortunately, his back-up position fell through and he now found himself out of work. With a wife on maternity leave and 2 kids with another one on the way he applied for EI benefits until he would be able to find another job. He had more than enough hours to qualify but because he “voluntarily left” he did not qualify. So he appealed their decision and explained he left because people’s safety was at risk. After asking the right questions the government employee implied that if my husband had gotten fired rather than quit he would have qualified. How on earth is that a solution – get yourself fired instead. He appealed it twice, even gave the notices that were written to Transport Canada regarding the company’s safety standards but no luck. There is currently an investigation being carried out with this company but they are still in operation. Travelers Beware.
So for 2 months we used our savings until he had secured another job. This put a major strain on us but we survived. He was working again. September came, baby three arrived and Alberta’s industry crashed. My husband found himself again out of work – this time due to layoffs, our baby spent a stint in the NICU and we quickly found ourselves in financial trouble. My husband applied again for EI benefits and guess what? Even though he had enough hours worked – his hours were disqualified because he had entered a claim earlier that year. The claim he never got benefits for remained open and counted against him as dismissed hours. He couldn’t use his own hours worked to receive payments. We weren’t told that he could have claimed paternity benefits until he had only 4 weeks left of his year long open claim. We were disheartened that this was happening and that due to technicalities on “the system” we just didn’t qualify.
We looked at all of our options and after sending out resume after resume we realized it was time to look for help again from our government.
For weeks we went to the Alberta Works Office and each day there were no appointments available. We arrived earlier and earlier but today we felt good. 8th in line – we would finally get in.
My fellow Calgarians were huddled around a portable heater that one person had brought. He came at 4:00am after days of being turned away, he said he felt like he won the lottery being the first one in line. There was a woman who bragged about living on the system for years. Another woman who had seen a support worker a year prior and explained that she was struggling to pay for her anti-depressant meds and her assigned worker said “you don’t look like your struggling.” This woman also willingly gave her keys to another line mate, a person she had never met before, so he could warm himself in her car. She joked that she wasn’t sure if that was the best idea to do. I bit my tongue when the guy right in front of me in line was bragging about making $70,000 in 4 months and blowing $8000 at the casino. He was single, had 2 grown children and was accustomed to a certain lifestyle. He said he didn’t really need the help but if the government was offering it, he would take it.
I was amazed, we really needed it and here is a guy who is just seeing what he could get. We were led inside the building and lined up to get their appointment times. And after only 7 people – all the appointments were filled for the day. They could only accommodate 7 people. We were number 8. I looked at the single guy who had bragged about his money and not really needing this as my husband and I with 3 kids to support were turned away. He took the spot that we really needed. How many other families out there are struggling? We are not the only ones. And how can this be a system that works. I understand that things operate on a first-come first-served basis but being the next in line and told to try again tomorrow can’t be the answer. With the rise of unemployment in Alberta is there no better solution than having people start to line-up at 4am (yes, people were starting that early) for assistance? Is there no way to screen the people prior to ensure that people who are waiting for an appointment actually need it? A few simple questions to determine who should get an appointment that day such as: do you have dependents? Have you used social services before? It shouldn’t have to come down to being evicted or disconnected before you are considered for help. How do you prioritize who gets help first? Should a person living on the system, struggling with mental illness, living beyond their needs or a family who hit a rough patch all be lumped together on a first-come, first-served basis. Our system is severely broken Canada.
My husband and I have been working since we were 16. We’ve paid into this system since then and now when it’s needed most we can’t access the help. Our taxes for the past 18 years have been invested back into Canada. We need to help our fellow citizens that have been contributing to this country – Oh Canada, you are truly failing your citizens that genuinely need help.
NB: I just got off the phone with the manager of the Alberta Works facility to see if there were any other options available to families in this situation. I have to say I was amazed to get a callback and she did seem genuinely concerned however I was told that it is a first-come, first-served system. That appointment availability fluctuated from day to day depending on the number of staff members. And that everyone waiting was in the same boat. But if I calculate correctly – if one staff member can see one person per hour and take an hour lunch break that would be 7 people per day…so was there only one person working that day? A simple screening process based on need would save them time and perhaps bump that one family who really needs help one spot closer to the front.
Please Share, perhaps if enough people are aware of what’s going on things can change.