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Stricter EI rules rile labour chiefs

May 25 2012

Tougher rules for receiving federal employment insurance are not sitting well some local labour leaders, who see problems for workers in seasonal industries.

"The changes seem to be demanding that people who are in receipt of employment insurance chase work," said Mike Eso, president of the Victoria Labour Council.

He said workers will often relocate for a job, but moving because of short-term job loss is another matter.

"People do depend on employment insurance to maintain a home between jobs," Eso said, adding that it is unclear whether individuals will be forced to move to find work. "The way the government has rolled out these announcements doesn't do anything to clear up these questions."

The government's changes, announced Thursday, target repeat employment insurance users. All recipients will be required to commute up to an hour or more for a job and accept work if it pays between 70 and 90 per cent of their previous income.

The Conservatives will wait until their omnibus budget-implementation bill is passed by Parliament before fully defining "suitable employment" that EI recipients must accept to continue receiving benefits, and what is considered a "reasonable job search."

Irvin Figg, president of the United Fishermen and Allied Workers Union, is also concerned about people who work in seasonal fields. "It's not like they don't want to work," Figg said.

"You just don't get parttime jobs at decent rates in coastal communities."

He said workers in seasonal industries contribute to small-community economies year-round, but that won't happen if they move to find off-season jobs. "We see it as an attack on those communities."

Under the proposed reforms, the federal government's definition for suitable employment will be based on six criteria: personal circumstances; working conditions; hours of work; commuting time; type of work, and hourly wage.

"These changes are not about forcing people to accept work outside their own area, nor about taking jobs for which they are not suited," Human Resources Minister Diane Finley told reporters in Ottawa.

The government expects the changes - likely to take effect next year - will see less than one per cent of EI claimants cut off from their benefits.

Pay levels and type of work deemed suitable for EI claimants will be based on a person's EI history and the duration of the claim.

As the length of a claim increases, the claimant must expand the scope of their job search in terms of type of work and wage.

With low unemployment in Greater Victoria, changes to the system should have limited effect locally, said Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce CEO Bruce Carter. "From a Victoria perspective, I don't see this as a challenge at all," said Carter. He said the unemployment rate is about five per cent, which is considered to be a level where "anyone who wants to have a job can have one."

In fact, the number of EI claimants in Victoria has dropped to 3,290 in March, down 670 people from a year ago. Across Canada, the number of people receiving regular EI benefits was almost unchanged in March at 549,400 and has remained fairly stable since September 2011, Statistics Canada said Thursday.

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