EI reforms stand despite hints of changes, Ottawa says

The Harper government says tough new rules on Employment Insurance stand, despite recent hints in New Brunswick to the contrary.

New Brunswick officials believed tough new rules would be softened

The Harper government says there are no changes coming to tough new rules on Employment Insurance.

There have been hints in New Brunswick during the past week that Ottawa would soften some of the requirements announced in May, which include repeat claimants having to accept lower-paying jobs farther from where they live.

But Alyson Queen, a spokesperson for federal Human Resources Minister Diane Finley, says an announcement Thursday was meant to clarify the new rules, not change them.

"There is nothing new beyond what the minister spoke about in May," Queen told CBC News.

"These regulations, or changes to the EI Act, speak to giving people better information on what is required to conduct a reasonable job search when on EI, and what constitutes suitable employment that they would be required to accept," she said.

Earlier this week, New Brunswick Labour Minister Danny Soucy said he was expecting changes to the rules.

The Alward government was asking the federal government to soften them, he had said.

"We have a lot of seasonal workers, we have a lot of seasonal industry, and we want to make sure that all the people in the province are well-treated with the EI system," Soucy had said.

Moncton-Riverview-Dieppe Conservative MP Robert Goguen made similar comments last week about expecting changes.

Reforms take effect Jan. 6

But the new definitions of "reasonable job search" and "suitable employment" have passed through the regulatory process and will come into effect on Jan. 6, Finley said in a statement on Thursday.

"Our government is making common-sense changes to help better connect unemployed Canadians with available jobs in their local area, that match their skills," she said.

While EI claimants have always had an obligation to look for work, the updated definitions clarify claimants’ responsibilities to look for and accept suitable work, said Finley.

Several factors will be considered in defining suitable employment, including type of work, wages, commuting time, working conditions, hours of work and personal circumstances, she said.

Although there's a widespread belief people seeking work will have to get potential employers to fill out forms proving they applied, that is not true, the department spokeswoman said.

Finley says the federal government will also continue working with interested provinces and territories to explore ways to help people on EI access employment supports, such as training and skills development, earlier in their claim.

Could have 'serious impact' in New Brunswick

The EI reforms could cut benefits to roughly 465 New Brunswickers during peak periods and reduce the amount of EI benefits flowing into the province by $7 million annually, according to a briefing note prepared for Premier David Alward.

The reforms could cause problems for many seasonal employers and spur on a further exodus from rural New Brunswick, according to the June 28 document, which was obtained by CBC News through the Right to Information Act.

Forcing workers into alternative employment during off-seasons could create an unstable business environment if they are unavailable to seasonal enterprises on resumption of production, the briefing note said.

"The resulting erosion of economic returns may induce a further exodus from rural areas."

New Brunswick is traditionally one of the the most heavily-dependent provinces on the EI program. In the last 24 months, there were an average of 35,019 EI clients each month, with the number reaching as high as 45,830.