Civil servants making door-to-door visits to Employment Insurance recipients are trained to deal with confrontation and shouldn't be concerned about their safety, says the federal Human Resources minister.
Hundreds of Service Canada "integrity officers" are making the rounds of 1,200 EI claimants across Canada before the end of March.
According to Human Resources Minister Diane Finley, the employees are handing out in-person invitations to their customary job-search interviews as part of an audit being conducted while the EI program is being overhauled.
But the Public Service Alliance of Canada said the visits should be stopped in areas of the country where EI is an explosive issue — like Atlantic Canada — over concern for the workers' safety.
On Wednesday, Jeannie Baldwin, the union's Atlantic regional executive vice-president, called the situation "volatile" because many EI recipients are anxious about the program's changes and fear their benefits could be cancelled.
However, Finley said the workers have been trained to deal with such situations.
'Anyone who follows the rules has absolutely nothing to fear.' —Diane Finley, Human Resources Minister
"Their safety is our primary concern, so they've been instructed," she said.
"And in cases when there has been aggressive behaviour, those visits can be stopped. I hate to see that happen, because, quite frankly, these people are coming to the door simply to invite people to a meeting."
Don Rogers, the national president of the Canadian Employment and Immigration Union, said Wednesday that he wrote to the federal government recently requesting an end to the house calls project.
The department told Rogers the in-person calls had been stopped in New Brunswick's Acadian Peninsula where several protests have taken place, but not elsewhere.
He also heard from regional vice presidents that the federal government is winding down the project.
When asked by CBC News whether claimants could see the door-to-door tactic as intimidation or harassment, Finley said various government programs have carried out similar evaluations for 30 to 40 years, either by phone, mail or in-person.
She said the random visits are to determine those people who are "forthright in their eligibility."
"That should not be intimidating," said Finley.
"That's quite normal for anybody who is on EI or collecting any other benefits to expect that we want to make sure that eligible people are getting it and only eligible people."
"Anyone who follows the rules has absolutely nothing to fear," says Finley.
Finley reiterated that the integrity officers do not have what are called performance quotas, but rather targets for different regions.
Government documents obtained by Montreal newspaper Le Devoir showed that civil servants are expected to find $485,000 each in fraudulent claims. They also outlined performance evaluation expectations for the investigators.
But Finley said that last year, Service Canada was able to stop about half a billion dollars of ineligible payments and that there are several hundred million dollars more still out there.
"When you set quotas, that implies that there are consequences for the people who don't … hit their quotas and this is not the case. There are no bonuses, no punishments for frontline people in Service Canada or indeed the managers who are in the union."
However, department executives are compensated on a long list of criteria if their employees meet their targets, said Finley.
Last May, Finley announced that major EI changes were being phased in.
EI claimants are now expected to accept any job for which they are qualified, within 100 km of home, as long as the pay is 70 per cent of their previous salary. They also have to prove they are actively seeking work.
"If the jobs aren't out there — and in many seasonal areas they aren't — then EI will continue to be there for them as it always has been," she said.