The longer and more frequently someone is claiming employment insurance, the broader their job search will have to be and the lower the wages they must be willing to accept, according to proposed regulations.

Human Resources Minister Diane Finley revealed details Thursday about plans to reform EI that would change the definitions of "suitable work" and "a reasonable job search." 

"This will ensure impartiality and strengthen requirements for Canadians receiving EI benefits to actively look for and accept all suitable work," Finley said at a news conference in Ottawa.

She said the government is clarifying the definitions and helping unemployed Canadians connect to available jobs, not forcing them to take jobs outside where they live or for which they are not suited.

'This government would have you believe that they're sitting there and surfing off the shores of Nova Scotia or skiing in the mountains of British Columbia ... it's not true.'—Ken Georgetti, Canadian Labour Congress

Under new regulations expected to be in place by early 2013, the new definition of suitable employment would be based on six criteria:

  • Personal circumstances.
  • Working conditions.
  • Hours of work.
  • Commuting time.
  • Type of work.
  • Hourly wage.

Personal circumstances would include health conditions and family situations, and commuting time within one hour, possibly longer if such commuting times are normal in a given community.

$485 maximum in EI can be collected

The type of work and hourly wages considered suitable could change, depending on how long someone is claiming the benefit. Approximately 500,000 Canadians are claiming EI at any given time. The benefit pays eligible Canadians a maximum of 55 per cent of their average weekly earnings. The maximum weekly amount is $485.

The government intends to classify claimants in three categories:

  • Long-tenured workers who have paid into the EI program for seven of the past 10 years, and over the last five years have collected regular or fishing benefits for 35 weeks or less.
  • Frequent claimants are those who have had three or more claims (regular or fishing) for a total of more than 60 weeks in the past five years.
  • Occasional claimants are all other claimants, who have limited experience in being unemployed.

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After collecting EI benefits for 18 weeks, long-tenured workers, for example, would be required to expand their job search to jobs considered similar to their previous job and to accept wages at 80 per cent of their previous hourly wage. A roofer, for example, could be expected to take a construction-related job.

The rules are tightened up most for frequent EI users, who after six weeks would be expected to accept any work they are qualified to do and to accept wages starting at 70 per cent of their previous hourly wage.

Seasonal workers will fall into the frequent-user category, and the changes could mean they would be expected to take retail, food service or other jobs that are vacant in their communities. If they decline job offers, they could be cut off from EI.

Approximately 17 per cent of EI claimants are considered frequent users, while 58 per cent fall under the occasional category and 25 per cent under the long-tenured category.

Occasional users could limit their job search to their usual occupation and wage for the first six weeks, and as more time goes by, they will also have to expand their search and be willing to accept work they are qualified to do and accept a lower salary. After 18 weeks, they would be required to accept wages starting at 70 per cent of their previous earnings but not lower than minimum wage.

Staff from Finley's department who work on the EI program will be responsible for deciding if a job is similar to someone's usual job and integrity officers will monitor job-searching efforts and make determinations about whether the criteria are being met.

Goal to find work that matches skills, Finley says

Finley had been under pressure to reveal details about the planned changes, first laid out broadly in the March budget. The budget implementation bill proposes giving cabinet the authority to make new EI regulations but until today, the government had been tight-lipped about what those regulations would look like.

Opposition MPs and other critics speculated that the government was going to force unemployed Canadians to move and accept jobs outside their occupation, a suggestion Finley denied Thursday.

"The changes that we are proposing to EI are not about forcing people to move across Canada or to take work that doesn't match their skill set. Our goal is to help Canadians find local work that matches their skills," she said.

Finley also gave more details on how EI officials will determine if a claimant is making reasonable efforts to find work. Claimants will be assessed based on their job search activities, the intensity and frequency of their efforts, the type of work they are looking for and on the evidence they have to prove their efforts.

EI recipients will be required to apply for positions, attend interviews, go to job fairs and workshops, search for vacancies and to do these activities every day that they are receiving benefits. They have to keep a record of their activities and if EI recipients don't comply with these rules, they could be cut off from the program.

Part of the government's new plan is to introduce a new job search service that will feature daily emails to EI claimants, with enhanced job information. The new Job Alerts system will draw from the federal government's Job Bank service and from private-sector job postings.

Recipients will get job postings from their chosen occupation and related occupational sectors, and from communities within reasonable commuting distances, and the emails will include labour market information such as wage rates.

Currently, claimaints receive job postings from the federal Job Bank every two weeks.

$21M set aside for EI overhaul

The government also says it plans to do more to reduce reliance on the temporary foreign workers program so that employers turn first to unemployed Canadians. It plans to enhance information sharing between the EI and the temporary foreign worker program.

Finley's department gave examples of where employers have applied to the federal government for permission to bring in foreign workers where unemployed Canadians are collecting EI.

In Alberta in January, employers were allowed to hire 1,261 temporary workers for food-counter attendants and at the same time, nearly 350 Canadians made a claim for EI who said they had experience in that job. In Prince Edward Island in the same month, 294 unemployed fish plant workers made EI claims, while 60 foreign workers were approved for work in the same job.

"In a lot of cases they can't hire Canadian workers simply because the Canadian workers don't know that the jobs exist, and we're going to help those workers find out about those job postings, those job availabilities," said Finley. "I think that will help the employers."

The minister said that McDonald's, for example, shouldn't be bringing in foreign workers to do jobs that Canadians who are on EI have the skills to do.

The department is anticipating that less than one per cent of claimaints would be cut off due to the new rules. 

Finley said $21 million is being invested in implementing the new system and that most of that money will go to the new job alert service and some money will be dedicated to enforcing the new rules.

Finley said most EI claimants do follow the rules and she expects that will continue.

The NDP's finance critic, Peggy Nash, called the proposed changes disappointing and said they will restrict access to EI.

"What we heard today is the minister scapegoating unemployed Canadians, that they're not trying hard enough to find work," Nash said.

She said Finley is sending a message that the unemployed are lazy and don't want to work. Nash said more pressure should be put on employers to create more jobs in order to reduce the unemployment level.

The Liberals also reacted negatively to the announcement, saying in a statement that they will penalize the unemployed. Human resources critic Rodger Cuzner said his party is concerned that the proposed rules will force people to take low-skilled, low-paying jobs and will jeopardize the economic security of communities that rely on seasonal industries.

The Liberals called on the government to strip the EI reform measures out of the omnibus budget bill so they can be given more scrutiny.

Ken Georgetti, president of the Canadian Labour Congress, said the EI changes amount to "ridiculous economic policy."

"It's short-term thinking and it's political football with the people that are the most vulnerable in our society. People who are unemployed don't want to be unemployed. This government would have you believe that they're sitting there and surfing off the shores of Nova Scotia or skiing in the mountains of British Columbia ... it's not true," he said on CBC News Network.

He also noted that people using employment insurance may not have the internet access that will be required to receive the daily job posting emails.

Some premiers also expressed concerns about the upcoming rule changes. Prince Edward Island Premier Robert Ghiz told Evan Solomon on Power & Politics that his province has unique labour conditions. Its three biggest industries – agriculture, tourism and fisheries – are all seasonal, he noted, and he's worried his province may be adversely affected by the changes.

"One size does not fit all and that's going to be the argument that we're going to be making to the federal government," he said.

Ghiz said he's "cautiously optimistic" that once implemented, the new regulations will not cause harm to his province.

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