The federal government has begun visiting employment insurance recipients at home as part of an "examination" being conducted while the program undergoes an overhaul.
The majority of individuals selected for a random audit are receiving invitations, in person, to appear at their customary EI interviews as part of the project, which wraps up next month.
Some recipients are already on edge, given the changes to the program that have seasonal workers fearing their benefits might be cancelled. The union representing federal employees, meanwhile, says it's concerned for the safety of its workers.
The federal government has confirmed the house calls, but says that Service Canada also attempts to contact people by mail and telephone.
"An examination to ensure the integrity of the employment insurance program is currently underway," Human Resources Development Canada told The Canadian Press in an email.
Federal employees have been making the unannounced visits since January, and have been hand-delivering requests for people to appear at the regular EI interview.
About 50 federal employees have been assigned to the project.
The sample of 1,200 EI recipients has been randomly selected from across the country, according to the government.
"Every year, unfortunately, in our employment insurance system, hundreds of millions of dollars are identified or are lost through false or fraudulent or inappropriate claims," Prime Minister Stephen Harper said at an event Thursday in Saskatoon.
"One of the jobs of Human Resources and Skills Development Canada is to ensure that the funds in the employment insurance system are there for people who have lost their jobs who qualify and who need that help," Harper said.
Seasonal worker in N.B. paid visit
One of the people who received a personal visit was a seasonal worker in New Brunswick. The woman, who has worked for 35 years in a fish factory, agreed to speak with The Canadian Press on condition of anonymity.
She said that as she was getting home from running errands on Feb. 5, a civil servant arrived at her house.
"It surprised me when she asked for me. It kind of stunned me," the woman said.
"She told me: 'I came to bring you a form. You fill it out, and then I want to have an interview with you on Wednesday.' I told her, 'I'll be there."'
As with everyone else receiving seasonal benefits, she is being asked to actively seek work in her off-months while awaiting the return to the fish factory.
"All I can do is work in a factory," she said.
"I'm going everywhere to look for work... There is none."
A New Brunswick group has taken up the cause of workers like her.
It says these visits from the feds are only adding fuel in a volatile climate, given the government's EI reforms.
"It's abusive," said Alma Breau-Thibodeau, of the Employment Insurance Action Committee In Defence of Workers.
"They're abusing us like crazy. We all feel targeted by this law. . . You know it's gone too far when you're being checked upon at home.
"We have telephones, you know. And post offices."
Climate of fear
Wayne Easter, a Liberal MP from P.E.I., said his constituents are also feeling they are the targets of the changes to EI.
"You're made to feel like a criminal almost. This is what is so, so wrong. Look, the absolute great, great majority of people, seasonal workers, who are in the employment insurance system do not abuse it," Easter told CBC News.
"The objective of the Harper government is to make people feel afraid."
Easter said he has never seen so much fear among seasonal workers on the Island.
Earlier this month, HRSD confirmed to CBC News that it has set national and regional EI enforcement targets, putting a dollar value on the quantity of improper payments it hopes to track down.
Nationally, the department has a target of $430 million for what it calls "integrity work." The biggest target for a single region is Quebec, where the department expects to gain $120 million by investigating claims, then declaring them ineligible.
Finley has denied an earlier report in a Quebec French-language newspaper that individual integrity investigators have monthly quotas for the amount of improper payments each is supposed to hunt down.
"Last year, the employment insurance program lost hundreds of millions of dollars due to fraud and ineligible payments, despite nearly half a billion dollars in ineligible payments that were detected and stopped by Service Canada," a spokeswoman for Human Resources Minister Diane Finley wrote CBC News in an email Thursday.
"The only people who lose if the opposition stops us from rooting out employment insurance fraud are Canadians who follow the rules," Finley's office wrote.
House calls potentially risky
An NDP MP from New Brunswick, Yvon Godin, warned the government to stop the house calls — which he described as "intimidation."
He said people are angry and in no mood for a visit from the feds.
"I wouldn't recommend for representatives of the government to go knocking on doors right now. It's dangerous," Godin said.
He said it's wrong for the government to be placing its workers in that position.
A federal workers' union representative said she had already been concerned for all employees because of the controversy over the changes.
"The level of aggressiveness is rising and I'm worried about the safety of the members I represent," said Nathalie Paulin.
"We understand people's distress. We feel it too."
Changes took effect in January
Last May, Human Resources Minister Diane Finley announced major EI reforms that are being phased in.
From now on, people who frequently claim EI are expected to accept any job for which they're qualified, within 100 kilometres of home, as long as the pay is 70 per cent of their previous salary.
They must also prove they're actively seeking work.
Detractors of the plan say it's particularly harsh on Atlantic Canada and Quebec, which have a number of seasonal industries.
Finley issued a statement this week downplaying the impact on people.
She said nobody will lose any benefits, as long as they take steps to try finding a job and accept a reasonable offer of employment.