N.B. committee to study impact of EI reforms

The New Brunswick government is setting up a committee to look at how federal reforms to employment insurance will affect workers in the province. Meanwhile, New Brunswick farmers are calling for a moratorium on the changes.

Civil servants to report to government by mid-June

New Brunswick's agriculture sector is the latest to raise concerns over the federal government's proposed Employment Insurance reforms 1:55

The New Brunswick government is setting up a committee to look at how federal reforms to employment insurance will affect workers in the province.

The move comes nearly a week after the changes were announced and a variety of groups have voiced concerns.

Premier David Alward announced Tuesday that a committee of senior civil servants will spend two weeks analyzing the changes.

He maintains his government needs more information before being able to take a stance on the issue, although other Atlantic premiers have already denounced the changes.

Still, Deputy Premier Paul Robichaud did say forcing frequent EI users to drive an hour for work may not be realistic.

"Sometimes the cookie-cutter approach, the one-size-fits-all created by Ottawa, doesn't necessarily fit in the New Brunswick reality," he said.

Under the proposed changes, frequent users of EI, such as seasonal workers in farming, fishing and forestry, would, after six weeks, be expected to take any job they are qualified to do.

They would also have to accept wages starting at 70 per cent of their previous rate.

The Opposition has accused the premier of failing to stand up for the province’s seasonal workers.

Interim Liberal Leader Victor Boudreau contends the changes will damage local economies across the Maritimes due to the large number of seasonal industries.

Farmers call for moratorium

On Tuesday, the Agricultural Alliance of New Brunswick added its voice to the chorus of people raising concerns about the changes.

The organization, which represents more than 800 farmers, is calling for a moratorium on the reforms until more flexibility can be added for seasonal workers.

Otherwise, people like David Coburn, owner of Coburn Farms in Keswick Ridge, are worried they won’t be able to find enough seasonal workers at harvest time.

"If I can’t get my crop in, that’s my livelihood, so this is concern," said Coburn, a six-generation farmer whose family has worked the land for more than 200 years.

"When we move into the harvest, I mean we only have a few weeks to get the crop in," he said.

"It’s a challenge to find people and so we don’t need it made any harder."

In March, the alliance said the province was already facing a seasonal labour shortage.

"Labour shortage is a serious negative factor leading to lack of achieving productivity potential and to the stress of the farmer," the group stated in a news release.

Coburn says both provincial and federal politicians have to get involved now and speak up for Atlantic Canada because once the reforms are in place, it may be too late to change the one-size-fits all policy.

Business leader says reforms go too far

David Ganong, chairman of Ganong Bros. Limited, says the reforms go too far, too fast. (CBC)

A prominent New Brunswick businessman is also questioning Ottawa's approach.

David Ganong, chairman of Ganong Bros. Limited in St. Stephen, says it's true some people abuse EI and are simply unwilling to work.

But he still believes the reforms go too far, too fast.

Requiring frequent EI users to commute for an hour for other work may be easy in large cities with public transit, but the situation is different in New Brunswick, Ganong said.

"You say that that person has got to travel an hour when they're laid off. Where do they go? How do they get there?

"I think the missing piece here is how the decision-makers in Ottawa understand rural New Brunswick."

Interestingly, federal officials have cited Ganong’s use of foreign workers as an argument for reform.

About 20 per cent of his staff is from Romania. Ganong has said the company uses Romanian workers to fill positions that local residents, some of whom are on EI, don’t want.

Federal officials say the reforms could encourage EI recipients to take such jobs.

But Ganong told CBC News his Romanian employees are not foreign guest workers, they're in the province for the long-term.

"The EI reforms don't make a whole lot of difference at the company," he said.