Proposed changes to employment insurance announced Thursday could have a big impact in New Brunswick.

The federal government plans to tighten the rules for frequent users in seasonal industries — making them take jobs in their region that are available off-season, rather than collect EI and wait for their old job to restart.

New Brunswick has a large seasonal workforce, including those in the fishing industry, forestry, tourism and construction.

In fact, more than 108,000 people, or about a quarter of the province’s entire workforce, collected some EI in 2010 — $826 million worth in total. 

That’s 70 per cent more than the national average, largely because of seasonal work.

Federal Human Resources Minister Diane Finley says the government is clarifying the definitions of "suitable work" and "a reasonable job search" to help unemployed Canadians connect to available jobs, not to force them to take jobs outside where they live or for which they are not suited.

But New Brunswick Liberal MLA Donald Arseneault is not convinced.

'It's almost like you're treating seasonal workers like criminals, like repeat offenders.'—Liberal MLA Donald Arseneault

"It's almost like you're treating seasonal workers like criminals, like repeat offenders," he said.

"The more you are going to request EI assistance, the less you're going to get and the more difficult it's going to be to access those programs."

Last week, Premier David Alward was offering assurances that the federal EI reforms wouldn't hurt New Brunswickers, even before the details were unveiled.

"We will ensure our employees are protected in New Brunswick, that our communities are protected, Mr. Speaker," Alward had said.

But Finley made it clear she wants big changes and is specifically targeting situations like the one at Ganong Bros. Limited in St. Stephen.

The company imports foreign workers to fill positions that local residents, some of whom are on EI, don't want. About 20 per cent of Ganong's staff is from Romania, chairman David Ganong has said.

"What we want to do is make sure the McDonald's of the world aren't having to bring in temporary foreign workers to do jobs that Canadians on EI have the skills to do," Finley said.

May not benefit employers

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Fishing is just one of the many seasonal industries in New Brunswick. (CBC)

Hard workers can be hard to find, said Blair Stirling, a farmer in Gagetown.

Even with apple harvest time still months away, he’s already thinking about the 16 workers he will need to hire, he said.

"Oh, it's been pretty challenging over the years."

Still, forcing someone to take the job might not benefit the employer, Stirling said.

"Arm twisting never seems to work. We always found that the employees who come and find us and ask us for a job, are always the better workers."

Lucie Tibbel has worked for Stirling for the past few years.

She said she doesn't know much about the new EI rules, but she believes if you can work, you should.

She has six jobs.

"I clean the RCMP, the village office, post office, six days a week, pack apples during the day, and I clean houses on the weekend, so there's always work, I'm always getting phone calls for work," she said.

"So there's all kinds of jobs if people want to work. That's all I have to say about working."

Katelyn Myra has the same mind set. But she used to travel an hour to work and can understand how that can be difficult for those earning only minimum wage.

"The only thing I could see being a problem is the travelling expenses, and I could see if you have kids and stuff like that, for babysitting, and. I don't know, I just think if you're able to work you should do it."

Annemarie Cameron said some people might not want physically-demanding jobs.

"They don't want to do the hard labour like packing apples, or picking apples, or working on the farm."

The impact of the EI changes in the province will largely depend on how strictly the new rules are enforced.

But Finley says frequent EI users will not be allowed to collect if a reasonable job is available within an hour of their home.

The new regulations are expected to be in place by early 2013.