Ottawa is tightening Employment Insurance eligibility with new rules that hit repeat claimants hardest, but will force all on the system to accept lower paying jobs.
The government says it will put strict definitions on what constitutes “suitable employment” and what the unemployed must do to find a job in order to get off EI.
The new rules are expected to be in effect early in 2013.
The changes means Canadians will be treated differently depending on how often they dip into the system, or how long they are currently receiving benefits.
Human Resources Minister Diane Finley said the intent of changes is to get Canadians off EI and on to jobs for which they are qualified.
“We want to help Canadians who want to work get back to work,” she said.
“These 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.”
But NDP critic Peggy Nash accused the government of blaming the unemployed for the poor economy.
“What we heard today is the minister scapegoating unemployed Canadians . . . that they are not trying hard enough to find work,” she said, pointing out that currently only 40 per cent of the unemployed are receiving benefits.
Nash also expressed alarm that the minister could arbitrarily change the rules again at any time without consulting parliament.
For so-called long-tenured workers who have been mostly employed the past 10 years, the new rules will require that they accept a job within their usual occupation as long as it pays at least 90 per cent of their previous hourly wage.
The worker must become less choosy and willing to take a lower-paying job — within 80 per cent of their previous pay — after 18 weeks being on the system, however.
For frequent EI claimants, the rules will be far stricter, the government says.
Canadians who have been on the system at least three times for a total of 60 weeks over the past five years will be expected to take a similar job that pays at least 80 per cent of the previous rate. But that’s only for six weeks — after that they would be required to take any job they are qualified for at 70 per cent of the previous pay.
The government has also created a third, in-between category called occasional claimants. They will need to accept work that pays at least 90 per cent of their previous scale in the first six weeks, 80 per cent in the next 12 and 70 per cent after 18 weeks on benefits.
The majority of claimants — 58 per cent — fall in this category, the minister said.
The government said it will also make it easier for the unemployed to find work by issuing them two “job alerts” a day by email informing them of available work.
As well, the government intends to link the EI system with the temporary foreign workers program to ensure Canadians are aware of employers’ needs for workers.
“Bringing in temporary foreign workers is not acceptable, especially when we have Canadians willing to work,” she said.
But in return, those on benefits will need to prove to government officials that they are genuinely looking for work, including applying for positions, attending interviews and keeping a record of their search activities.
In most circumstances, Canadians will need to accept an available job that is within an hour’s commute of their home.
Policing the new rules is another matter. Finley says the government will spend an additional $21 million, but that the majority of that funding will go to the job alert system and not toward hiring civil servants to enforce the rules.
Government officials say it is difficult to assess how much the new regulations will save the system, but expect that fewer than one per cent of the half million claimants will be cut off.
The Harper government first said in its March 2012 budget that it would “clarify” who can continue to receive benefits, taking aim at people with a long history of claiming EI.
The government’s omnibus budget implementation bill contains measures to overhaul key conditions for EI claimants, but does not provide much detail about how the new rules would work.
Statistics Canada says 549,000 people were getting regular EI benefits in March, a figure little changed from the previous month. In fact, the agency says, the number of beneficiaries has been relatively stable since last September.
There were more people receiving benefits in March in Nova Scotia, Saskatchewan, Ontario and New Brunswick, but the number fell in Alberta.
To receive benefits, individuals must first submit a claim and the number of claims provides an indication of the number of people who could become beneficiaries.
Nationally, the number of initial and renewal claims totalled 234,200 in March, essentially unchanged for the sixth consecutive month.
Provincially, claims fell 2.9 per cent in Ontario, 2.6 per cent in British Columbia, and 1.7 per cent in Alberta, while they rose 2.6 per cent in Quebec and 1.1 per cent in New Brunswick.
The April unemployment rate was 7.3 per cent.
Uncertainty about the EI changes has prompted an outcry from some Atlantic premiers, opposition critics and organized labour.
Finley’s department has stopped sending Statistics Canada key and current information about how much federal money is flowing to each of the provinces for EI claimants, The Canadian Press has learned.
Three tables normally produced with Statistics Canada’s monthly EI summary are now “frozen,” according to the agency website.
But the government says it plans to send more job-availability information to unemployed people in the hope of finding them a job.
Statistics Canada said Wednesday there were about 237,000 unfilled jobs in February. That’s about one available job for every 5.8 unemployed workers.
The federal Conservatives have frequently expressed frustration at the number of jobs going unfilled even as the pool of unemployed workers remains large, but Ken Georgetti, president of the Canadian Labour Congress, issued a release saying the Statistics Canada numbers rebut the government’s contention.
“Despite such evidence the government wants to ram through parliament dramatic changes to Employment Insurance that are fundamentally wrong and unfair to working people,” said Georgetti.